Maine or “Northern” Shrimp (Pandalus borealis) have been targeted by fishermen in the Gulf of Maine for generations and are the small, delicious shrimp that normally make their way to our appetizer or dinner plates for the holiday season. This year though, Maine shrimp will be much harder to come by as the fishing season has been shortened due to a decline in the population according to the most recent population assessment.

Instead of heading out in the middle of December and fishing until sometime in March or even April, fishermen will be leaving the docks in the beginning of January with the hope that the season will last until the end of the month. The fishing community has had a range of reactions to the assessment, from people agreeing (at least to the point that we are working with the “best available science”), to others stressing that the numbers are simply incorrect. Much of the discussion around this issue thus far has focused on “How do we get better numbers out of the science,” and while that needs to be considered, we are shortsighted in only focusing on that aspect of the problem. Instead, we need to be asking ourselves how we got into this situation, and how can we ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t get me wrong—science is one side of the two-headed coin of fisheries management—but the other side is the policies that govern the fishery, which have not been able to control overfishing and have put the shrimp industry in jeopardy this year. Included is a graph of the size of the Northern shrimp population over the past 25 years. It is pretty clear that this is a boom-to-bust fishery meaning that there has been a series of robust periods followed by a sharp crash in the stock. Landings (the black line in the above graph which represents fish brought to market) tend to follow the population trends because, when the stock is good, more people get into the industry and effort is too high, and then the stock collapses. We see this trend often in many natural population structures, but the goal of the fishery is to maintain a population to support an industry.

The most recent collapse was in the late 1990s, and for several years after, very few people were willing to go shrimp fishing. This was, in part, because it was more difficult to find shrimp, but more importantly, the price of shrimp was so low that people didn’t think it was worth the effort to switch their boats over to a different gear. While classic supply-and-demand logic suggests that when there are less shrimp, they should be worth more, that doesn’t always work in fisheries because of the way the distribution chain functions. Historically, when the shrimp stock collapses, so does market demand because processing companies don’t want to bother switching their facilities to deal with the small amount of shrimp that would be landed. This lack of demand from processors further reduces fishermen’s incentive to catch shrimp. The reduction in fishing effort that occurred after the late ’90s collapse allowed the Northern shrimp population to return to robust levels. The market returned, and prices increased.

Once the price was high and the stock robust, those fishermen who hadn’t been targeting the species decided to reinvest in the fishery. Over the past few years, as a result of this reinvestment, there has been overfishing of the stock far beyond scientific recommendations, and now we are again seeing a sharp decline in Northern shrimp numbers. Unfortunately, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC), which manages the Northern shrimp fishery, is limited in the measures it can take to prevent overfishing. This year, managers implemented a system that restricts the number of days of the week a vessel can fish. The state of Maine (where 90 percent of this shrimp is caught) implemented even more restrictive measures allowing fishing to take place only from sunup till 1:00 p.m. This might slow down landings to help draw out the fishing season and keep prices high, but it doesn’t do anything to address the underlying problem within the fishery: There are now too many fishing vessels trying to catch too few shrimp. Despite the low numbers of shrimp that will be allowed to be caught this year, hundreds of boats will compete for the smaller-than-ever pool of quota, and there will be little, if any, profit to be made.

Over the next year, the ASMFC needs to address the issues facing our shrimp industry. The shrimp fishery is still an open access fishery, meaning that anyone can buy a permit and participate in a given year. Throughout the world, we have seen that open access leads to overfishing and does not ensure sustainable harvests. Furthermore, it creates a race to fish and puts pressure on fishermen to put safety concerns aside in the quest for the almighty dollar. Many fishermen will not think that they can afford to take a day off during the season when weather concerns might normally have kept them ashore. This year is shaping up to be a disaster, with many risks and hardly any gain. Science tends to take a lot of the blame for the problems we are facing, but it is time to accept that we need better policy and regulations to ensure a successful, economically viable, safe and sustainable shrimp fishery for the coastal fishing communities of Maine.

Ben Martens is the Executive Director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (formerly Midcoast Fishermen’s Association).

This essay was first published on on January 3, 2012.