ELLSWORTH, Maine — Though they already face reduced catch limits and fewer fishing days, some Maine shrimp fishermen might also have to use certain gear modifications when they trawl for the crustacean, according to officials.
But Patrick Keliher, acting commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said Wednesday that he hopes to convince federal officials to make shrimp boats exempt from the gear requirement, which also applies to groundfish vessels. The rule requires shrimp trawlers in the far western Gulf of Maine to use 12-inch “rock hopper” bumpers on their nets, which are designed to keep fishing nets from getting caught on rocks or in soft ocean bottom.
Keliher said he learned in late December, only days before the Gulf of Maine shrimp season started on Jan. 2, that federal regulators were planning to enforce the rule this season. He sent a letter Dec. 30 to the regional National Marine Fisheries Service office in Gloucester, Mass., asking federal regulators to delay enforcement of the rule until next winter.
“Adding this new requirement to the industry and to the state managed fishery process at the eleventh hour is unacceptable,” Keliher wrote in the letter.
NMFS officials contacted Tuesday and Wednesday did not provide any response or comment on the issue by Wednesday evening.
Keliher said, however, that he did get a written response from Bruce Buckson, the head of NMFS’ Office of Law Enforcement. Buckson indicated, according to Keliher, that shrimp boats off York County and further south will be monitored for compliance this winter but boats without the proper gear will be given only warnings. No boats will have to stop fishing or be issued violations if they are not using 12-inch rock hoppers.
Keliher said NMFS likely would start enforcing the rule next winter, but that Maine plans to petition the New England Fishery Management Council before then to exempt shrimp boats from the rule. The rule was applied to groundfish boats to help reduce bycatch, Keliher said, but Maine fishery officials do not believe shrimp boats have enough of an effect on groundfish to warrant the gear requirement, which could cost each boat several thousand dollars.
Glen Libby, a fisherman out of Port Clyde, said Wednesday that he already uses rock hoppers on all his trawlers and supports measures to protect habitat that will help ensure the viability of commercial fish species. But he said Keliher was right to resist enforcing the rule this season. Federal officials notified states about the mandate in late December, only days before the season was due to start, he said.
“I agree with that,” Libby said. “You can’t just dump that on someone a few days before the season starts. You’ve got to plan for it.”
Sorrento fisherman James West said Tuesday that he only fishes in eastern Maine. If he did have to put rock hoppers on his gear, he added, he could probably do it himself in a matter of a few hours.
But many other fishermen hire someone else to build the underwater frames that hold their nets, West said, and having someone else do the work could cost between $3,000 and $5,000 per boat, depending on the size of the net being hauled. He said his net is 80 feet long, and a new welded frame for it could cost $4,000.
“It would just be a hassle for me [to do the work],” West said. “That’s quite an expense right in the middle of the season.”
The gear requirement stands to be the latest in a series of increasing restrictions placed on the shrimp fishery in recent years. Due to catches that exceeded federal catch limits, the season in 2010 was shut down more than 30 days ahead of schedule, and last winter it closed six weeks early.
Fishermen who trawl for shrimp off eastern Maine, where the migratory crustacean appears later in the winter than it does in the western Gulf of Maine, felt short changed and said they had little chance to catch shrimp before the fishery was shut down.
As a result, the season this year opened on Jan. 2, later than its traditional December start. Other measures aimed at reducing the catch rate also were put into place. Fishing days were reduced from seven days a week to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and trap fishermen can’t start fishing until February and are limited to 1,000 pounds per day per boat.
But in addition to these measures, the federal catch limit was reduced again this year, leading many industry officials to predict that the 2012 season will not last long. The federal catch limit this winter on Gulf of Maine shrimp, 90 percent of which is harvested by Maine fishermen, is 4.2 million pounds, according to Keliher. Last winter’s catch limit was about twice that amount.
State and federal officials are hoping new requirements for more frequent filing deadlines of catch reports will help them keep better track of landings.