ELLSWORTH, Maine — With more frequent reporting requirements, shrimp fishery regulators are hoping to avoid exceeding catch limits for the Gulf of Maine crustacean.

Excessive catches each of the past two winters led the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission last week to cut the total allowable catch for northern shrimp in half, from 4,000 metric tons to 2,000 metric tons.

Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Tuesday that despite the reduced catch quota, the commission is taking steps to help avoid excessive catches and to make sure fishermen in Maine as well as Massachusetts and New Hampshire have the chance to fish for shrimp before the quota is reached and the fishery is shut down for the year.

Reducing the number of fishing days per week from seven to three; requiring all dealers to report landings every week, rather than letting state-licensed dealers report once a month; and starting the season in early January instead of early December should help protect the resource and make sure eastern Maine fishermen get a crack at the migratory shrimp as they move east along the coast, he said.

But he acknowledged that even with these measures the availability of northern shrimp will be tighter this winter.

“There’s only so much you can do with 2,000 metric tons,” he said.

The state’s shrimp industry has seen its landings improve in the past few years after it boomed in the late 1990s and then plummeted in the 2000s. In 2010, more than 5,500 metric tons of were harvested in Maine for the first time in 13 years while the average statewide price shrimp fishermen were paid for their catch was more than 50 cents per pound for the first time since 2005.

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 decision to reduce the catch limit by half, Stockwell said, was a tough one even though recent stock assessments indicate the reduced quota is necessary.

“It’s certainly not the news anyone wanted to hear,” Stockwell said. “The last two years have been very good.”

James West, a Sorrento fisherman, said he thinks there are more shrimp out there than the official stock reports indicate. He said it is unfortunate that after the shrimp fishery appeared to have recovered from low yields in the early 2000s, it is facing tighter limits again.

“Now we might lose the market again,” West said. “It could be a real short season.”

Last winter, because of high landings, the 4,000 metric ton limit was exceeded by 48 percent for an estimated landings total of more than 6,000 metric tons, even though regulators shut the fishery down several weeks early. The previous winter, in 2009-2010, the northern shrimp fishing fleet caught 28 percent more shrimp than the 4,900 metric tons it was limited to.

According to Stockwell, the more than 5,500 metric tons of northern shrimp brought ashore in Maine in 2010 made up 90 percent of all northern shrimp landings in the three states.

In 2010, the season ended 10 days early and this past winter it was closed on Feb. 28, 45 days ahead of schedule.

Meeting last week in Portsmouth, N.H., the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission decided the total allowable catch of northern shrimp for the 2012 winter fishing season should be 2,000 metric tons. The season is expected to get under way on Jan. 2, 2012. Regulators plan to close the fishery when landings are projected to reach 95 percent, or 1,900 metric tons, of the total allowable catch, according to a press release issued Tuesday morning by commission officials.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at www.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....