Thursday, January 9, 2014


You probably don’t care about northern shrimp.  But please be patient, and read the shrimp’s story.  For history tends to repeat itself, and if it does, a fishery that you cherish might die.

Northern shrimp live in and around the Gulf of Maine, and need cold water to thrive.  For years, the shrimp has supported a modest commercial fishery that operates during the winter; 87% of landings are allocated to trawlers, while the remaining 13% are taken in traps.

The shrimp’s lifespan is five or six years.  Like a number of marine creatures, the shrimp are hermaphrodites; they mature, as males, when 2 ½ years old, then switch sex to female a year later. 

After spawning, female shrimp carry the fertilized eggs on their bodies.  The eggs hatch in mid-winter.  Although the precise time of the hatch depends on water temperature, about half of the eggs have usually hatched by February 15. 

The northern shrimp stock is assessed every fall.  2004 produced the last strong year class; the past decade saw consistently sub-par spawns.  Warmer water temperatures probably played a role.  Since 2010, when the 2004 year class aged out of the fishery, abundance has declined.  Yet despite such declining abundance, ASMFC has allowed fishermen to overfish the population—by as much as 60%--for each of the past four years.

When ASMFC’s Northern Shrimp Technical Committee assessed the stock in 2011, it considered the declining abundance and the impact of warming waters, and recommended a 2012 catch limit it believed prudent—a little over 1,800 metric tons.

If northern shrimp had been a federally managed species, subject to the Magnuson Act, managers would have been legally required to follow the scientists’ advice.  In fact, the 2012 catch limit probably would have been set a little lower than recommended, to allow for any uncertainty inherent in the assessment.

But northern shrimp are not managed by federal regulators; they are managed by ASMFC, and ASMFC is not legally bound to be prudent.  So when its Northern Shrimp Section received the Technical Committee’s recommendation, it paid little heed, and set the 2012 quota more than 20% higher--over 2,200 metric tons.  And then it opened the season for trawlers on January 2, when all of the females would still be carrying unhatched eggs (because the shrimp were harvested more quickly than expected, the season was closed early, on February 17—about when it should have been opened).

The result was gross overfishing.  According to the northern shrimp management plan, fishermen should remove no more than 30% of the shrimp from the population in any one year; overfishing occurs if more than about 37% of the shrimp are taken.  But in 2012, ASMFC allowed more than 65% of the remaining population to be harvested, a level of landings that was nearly twice the overfishing threshold.

After that prodigal season, the entire biomass of northern shrimp—that is, the combined weight of every single living shrimp swimming anywhere in the Gulf of Maine and its surrounding waters—was only 1,500 metric tons.  That is less than three-quarters of the amount of shrimp that ASMFC had said it was OK to remove from such waters the previous spring!  And the Technical Committee came to that figure using a model known to overestimate abundance and underestimate fishing mortality in the most recent fishing year.

Scary stuff, certainly.  But then things got worse.

Scientists use trawl surveys to estimate the size of the shrimp population.  After the 2012 fishing season, that survey found the lowest abundance ever recorded.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that numbers of immature shrimp, needed to assure the future of the stock, were also extremely low.  The long-term average is 393 immature shrimp per trawl; the 2011 average was a mere 44 individuals, by 2012, it had fallen to a dismal 7, less than 2% of the norm.

Knowing those things, the Technical Committee acted responsibly.  Noting that short-term prospects for the fishery were “’very poor” and that, because of bad recruitment, long-term prospects were “also poor,” it called for a harvest moratorium in 2013.  However, because it knew that the Northern Shrimp Section was not likely to approve such a closure, it advised that the Section should take a “very conservative approach.”  Any harvest should not exceed the fishing mortality target.  Any season should not start until February 15, when half of the eggs would be hatched.

Again, if northern shrimp had been a federal fishery managed under the Magnuson Act, the scientific advice would have been binding.  There would have been no harvest in 2013 and, pursuant to law, a rebuilding plan would have been drafted to recover the stock, probably within ten years.

But the shrimp were managed by ASMFC, and its Northern Shrimp Section again rejected scientists’ advice.  The quota was cut substantially, but still remained so large, when the shrimp population was so small, that by season’s end, only half of that quota would be caught.  And it allowed trawlers to begin fishing as early as January 23, putting most of the egg-carrying females in jeopardy.  The subsequent stock assessment found that, even though fishermen only landed half of their quota, they overfished nonetheless. 

By that time, it was clear that ASMFC had done its traditional job; it had wrung out all the blood from the northern shrimp stone.  The stock had collapsed, and had nothing more to give.  So ASMFC finally declared a long-overdue moratorium last December.  No one can say how long it will be before the shrimp population rebounds and the season can open again.  No one can even say with certainty whether the population will ever recover.

The story of the northern shrimp is sad, and the saddest thing is, the whole thing wasl completely legal.  When managing fisheries, ASMFC need not abide by the Magnuson Act’s national standards or, in fact, any standards at all.  It may allow overfishing, ignore scientific advice and fail to rebuild stocks, and it cannot be compelled to do otherwise.

That, fellow anglers, is why the fate of the northern shrimp should matter to you.  For the same organization that manages northern shrimp—ASMFC—manages fish that you care about.  Fish such as tautog, weakfish and winter flounder.  And, of course, striped bass.

And the fate of the shrimp should matter to you because some folks clearly have not learned from history.  In recent years, “anglers’ rights” groups headquartered down near the Gulf of Mexico have grown discontent with the conservation provisions of the Magnuson Act.  They don’t like parts of the law that require depleted stocks to be promptly rebuilt, and they don’t like federal regulators who keep them from killing as many fish as they’d like to.  So they have set their sights on changing the law, so that some—maybe all, their plans aren’t completely clear—of the fish important to anglers will no longer be protected by strong federal laws, but instead will be exposed to the whims of state managers, just as northern shrimp are today. 

If they get their way, cold water fish such as haddock and cod might be managed by the very same folks who drove northern shrimp to the brink of oblivion.  The fate of fluke and black sea bass might be in the hands of regulators from places like New Jersey and North Carolina.  You can see the problems that is likely to cause.

So I would truly hate to see current law weakened, and I’ll do what I can to oppose anyone who tries.  But the simple truth is, most of my good years are already behind me.  While the “anglers’ rights” folks (along with plenty of others) certainly threaten the health of our fisheries, they probably won’t trash them all before my ashes are scattered at sea.

But if I was younger, or if I had kids or grandkids who liked to fish, I’d really be worried.  If I was in that boat, I’d do anything in my power to see that those people don’t win.

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