ELLSWORTH, Maine — Better scientific population estimates and a later start to the winter shrimp fishing season in the Gulf of Maine would help prevent early season closures, according to fishermen who attended a public hearing Monday night at City Hall.

The hearing was one of three on the fishery that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held within a week, the others being in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sept. 14 and in Rockland on Sept. 15. The hearings have been held to gather public comment on a proposed amendment to the commission’s management plan for the fishery, which could include monthly quotas, improved electronic catch reporting, some form of area management or even limited entry, according to officials with Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The three member states of the commission that work together to manage the northern shrimp fishery are Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Despite a good price and decent catches in recent years, some fishermen have been frustrated by shrimp fishing regulations. High landing amounts the past two winters have led to the fishery being closed early, which many fishermen in eastern Maine say has unfairly prevented them from getting an equal opportunity at harvesting the migratory crustacean. The season ended 10 days early in 2010 and this past winter it was closed on Feb. 28, 45 days ahead of schedule.

Starting the season on Jan. 1 instead of on Dec. 1, as it has each of the past five years, would allow more shrimp to drop their eggs before they are caught, which would provide a better product to processors and would result in more actual marketable shrimp meat being harvested within the catch limit, fishermen said at Monday’s hearing. Last winter, the total catch limit for the fishery was 4,000 metric tons.

A Jan. 1 start date also would give fishermen in eastern Maine a better chance at finding and catching shrimp before the cut-off limit is reached. Over the course of the winter fishing season, shrimp tend to migrate from the southwestern end of the gulf to the northeast.

But several of the 30 or so fishermen at Monday’s hearing said that a better solution would be to improve the scientific model used by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to calculate the number of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine. There are more shrimp out there than regulators think, they said, and a better model likely would raise the catch limit, which would allow fishermen to catch more shrimp without harming the viability of the resource.

Bar Harbor fisherman Jon Carter said that for years, scientists warned that fishermen were catching too many lobsters, which comprise the most lucrative fishery in Maine. But then University of Maine researcher Yong Chen came up with an improved and scientifically accepted population model for lobster, he said, and concerns about possible lobster overfishing faded away.

“If you’re going to control the [shrimp] fishery, you need better science,” Carter said.

According to DMR statistics, Maine fishermen caught and sold about $6.6 million worth of shrimp in 2010. By comparison, more than $313 million worth of lobster was caught in Maine last year.

Sorrento fisherman James West agreed about the need for better population modeling methods. He said he just was getting warmed up last year when regulators determined the shrimp fishery had exceeded the 4,000 metric ton limit and decided to close it at the end of February instead of on April 15.

“I had my best day the day before they shut us down,” West said. “Their science isn’t working. It’s nowhere near accurate.”

Spencer Fuller, the shrimp category manager for Portland-based Cozy Harbor Seafood, said Monday that abrupt, premature ends to the shrimp season are bad for his employer and other processors. He said the supply needs to be consistent and predictable in order to have a reliable market for Gulf of Maine shrimp.

“It was tough. We had a lot of markets we couldn’t fill,” Fuller said. “It was not good for the processors or for the people who work with us.”

Terry Stockwell, DMR’s director of external affairs, pointed out Monday that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission works with the best science it has available, and that improved methods for estimating shrimp populations were not part of the proposed amendment.

He also said that even though eastern Maine fishermen might prefer a later start date, others likely will want to keep it in December. Fishermen from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and southern Maine have expressed support for the current starting time, he said.

“The goal here is to spread it out so everyone has a whack at it,” Stockwell said. “Somehow, we’ve got to slow this fishery down.”

Stockwell said the more than 12 million pounds, or 5,500 metric tons, of northern shrimp brought ashore in Maine last year make up 90 percent of all northern shrimp landings in the three states. He said there are about 500 licensed shrimp fishermen in Maine.

The commission will accept public comment on the proposed amendment until 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3. Comments can be submitted via e-mail through the commission’s website, www.asmfc.org/.

Stockwell said the commission is expected to meet Friday, Oct. 28, to vote on the amendment and the coming shrimp season. The time and location of the meeting has not been decided, but he hopes it will be held in Maine, he said.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at twitter.com/billtrotter.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....