PORTLAND, Maine — New England fishermen have been casting their nets in the cold Gulf of Maine waters since the northern shrimp season began Jan. 2, but their season could be cut short this winter if their catches are too strong.
Regulators are meeting Thursday to assess where the overall harvest now stands. If it's too high, they could set a closing date to the season or further restrict fishermen with daily catch limits or cutting back how often they can go to sea.
The quota this season is 4.4 million pounds. That's barely a third of last year's catch of 13 million pounds.
Besides having their catch cut sharply from the past two years, fishermen also had their fishing days cut back — this winter they can fish only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Fishermen who catch shrimp in traps aren't allowed to fish until February.
Regulators cut this year's quota based on a scientific analysis that showed a decline in the shrimp population. But many fishermen and shrimp processors claim the science used to set the catch limit is flawed and underestimates the shrimp population.
They will present an alternative shrimp stock assessment on Thursday at a meeting in South Portland of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's northern shrimp section. The three-member panel sets the catch limit.
Fishermen say they will encourage the panel to increase this year's catch limit based on the alternative analysis, which concludes that this year's quota could be set at close to 10 million pounds without putting the shrimp population at risk. They'll also present another report in support of their analysis.
They've also launched a website, www.saveourshrimp.org, and an online petition seeking a larger quota.
"They need to get this right," Angelo Ciocca, president of Nova Seafood in Portland, said in a statement. "There are 1,500 fishermen and shore workers in Maine and New England who depend on the shrimp season for a paycheck to get them through the winter months. The huge cut in quota will cause real financial hardship for all the fishermen, dealers and processors and their employees."
Shrimp provide a winter fishery for hundreds of New England fishermen. Boats from Maine typically catch about 90 percent of the annual harvest, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts boats accounting for the rest.
Marshall Alexander of Biddeford has been fishing for shrimp for decades, rising before the sun and arriving back on land after dark on most fishing days. On a recent day, he hauled in net after net of shrimp aboard his 54-foot boat, De-Dee-Mae II, in waters off southern Maine.
Alexander has seen the shrimp catch rise and fall over the years, and he's not too keen on the changes he's seen in fishery management.
"Fishery managers and politicians are right the same now. None of them know what they're doing," he said. "They don't have the slightest idea about what they're supposed to be doing. All they are is trying to win a popularity contest on the working man's back."
Associated Press photographer Robert Bukaty contributed to this story.