SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Fishery regulators Thursday increased the amount of Gulf of Maine shrimp that can be caught this season, but Maine fishermen and processors said the higher limit won't make much difference.
More than 150 fishermen and processors packed a meeting room in South Portland, where a committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to increase the season's catch limit from 4.4 million pounds to nearly 4.9 million pounds, or about 10 percent.
Regulators said that based on scientific assessments, the 4.9 million-pound mark was the maximum catch that could be allocated without putting the shrimp population at risk. Members of Maine's shrimp industry were seeking a much higher catch limit they say is necessary to sustain the industry.
"I think it was a token that really won't make any difference in terms of the arguments that the harvesters and processors made about needing to sustain the industry, protect these jobs and protect the infrastructure" that supports the industry, said Maggie Raymond, a fishing boat owner and executive director of Associated Fisheries of Maine. "We really need to get to 3,000 tons (6.6 million pounds) in order to do that."
Northern shrimp provide a winter fishery for hundreds of fishermen from Maine, with smaller numbers from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Maine boats typically account for up to 90 percent of the catch.
Fishery managers each year set the season and the target harvest based on scientific surveys of the highly variable shrimp population. Fishermen and shrimp processors were caught off guard when regulators set a catch limit of 4.4 million pounds for the 2012 fishing season, which began Jan. 2. Fishermen last year harvested about 13.3 million pounds.
Fishermen are limited to fishing just three days a week — Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — while those who use traps to catch shrimp can't do so until February and will be limited to 1,000 pounds per day per boat.
A group of shrimp processors and fishermen offered regulators an alternative scientific assessment suggesting that this year's shrimp catch could be set at nearly 10 million pounds without jeopardizing the shrimp stocks. They also presented an online petition with more than 1,500 signatures asking them to reconsider this season's quota.
The committee that met Thursday assessed where this season's overall harvest stands and discussed whether they should change the catch limit or any of this season's fishing rules. The committee is made up of representatives from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, with each state having an equal say in shrimp management decisions.
Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher proposed increasing this year's catch limit to roughly 6.6 million pounds, but that proposal was not supported by the two other states.
In the final vote, all three states supported raising the catch limit to about 4.9 million pounds, the maximum threshold specified in the ASMFC's scientific surveys.
If the quota were raised any higher, it could jeopardize the shrimp population and hurt fishermen and processors even more on down the road, said William Adler, who represents Massachusetts on the committee.
But this year's small catch limit will take a toll on processors and fishermen and will result in lost jobs and income, said John Norton, owner of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland. He'd be surprised if the catch limit isn't reached by mid-February.
"I don't think the increase they gave us is enough to make any difference in the markets or any real difference in employment in Maine," he said.