FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2012 file photo, northern shrimp lie in a pile aboard a trawler in the Gulf of Maine. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission closed the 2014 shrimp season for the first time in more than 30 years because shrimp populations dipped to their lowest recorded levels. The commission is considering restrictions that could limit the number of licenses to fish for shrimp in the Gulf of Maine once the depleted fishery reopens. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
PORTLAND, Maine — Federal regulators may limit the number of fishermen allowed to catch northern shrimp in the Gulf of Maine once the depleted fishery reopens.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission closed the shrimp season for 2014 for the first time in more than 30 years because shrimp populations dipped to their lowest recorded levels. The commission will decide this fall if there will be a 2015 season.
The commission's northern shrimp section is now also considering restrictions that could limit the number of licenses to fish for shrimp or the number of vessels allowed in the fishery. The restrictions are in development and will likely be the subject of public hearings this year, regulators said.
The fishery's estimated biomass plunged from more than 7,000 metric tons in 2011 to about 500 metric tons in 2013, said Marin Hawk, management plan coordinator for the commission.
"We're investigating the number of vessels and the number of licenses," Hawk said. "Indicators show the fishery is not at the levels that they would like it to see."
The number of vessels in the fishery has fluctuated since 2000, with a low of 144 in 2006 and a high of 342 in 2011. Maine issued an average of 463 licenses per year from 2001 to 2011. The shrimp section also sets a total allowable catch limit every year.
Fishermen from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts fish for the shrimp. Maine dominates the fishery and caught nearly 5 million pounds of the shrimp in 2012. The catch plummeted to about 560,000 pounds in 2013, the last year the fishery was open.
Tim Simmons, president of the Maine Shrimp Trappers Association, said the move to limit participation in the fishery is unpopular with many fishermen. Many of the people who fish for shrimp are lobstermen who rely on shrimp fishing to make money during the winter months, he said. Timmons said a quota system is a better solution.
"We count on that fishery for our livelihoods," Simmons said. "We definitely should be having some sort of season in this upcoming year."
Northern shrimp are small, pinkish shrimp — tinier than the warm-water shrimp that make up much the U.S. shrimp harvest — and prized for their sweet, tender meat.
The three-state fishery exceeded $5 million in value as recently as 2012, and Maine's fishery alone exceeded nearly $10 million twice in the mid-1990s. They are normally fished and available to consumers in the winter but have been largely unavailable since the shutdown.
New restrictions on the fishery would need shrimp section approval after public hearings.