The Tail End

Will shrimp—and shrimp fishing—soon disappear from our waters?

Shrimp season in the Gulf of Maine has just started, but by the time you read this, it may already be over. That’s because the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has reduced the catch limit by 72 percent this year, a dramatic move that means the current season may not last much longer than a week. This is not a happy prospect for the 2,000 New Englanders whose living depends on the industry.

The shrimp population in the region has been in precipitous decline in recent years, thanks to overfishing and global warming, and the commission had argued that only a complete ban on shrimping would allow the population a chance to rebound. But fishermen negotiated a compromise that will allow them to catch a total of 1.38 million pounds this year. Even so, that’s a number that’s unlikely to keep many of them employed for long. Two years ago, their total catch was almost 10 times greater.

Most people agree that overfishing has contributed significantly to the problem. But climate change is playing an ever-growing role. According to the environmental analyst Michael Armstrong, who has studied the situation for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, a warmer ocean leads to smaller shrimp, and if ocean temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, the Gulf of Maine will one day be too warm for shrimp to reproduce at all.

The obvious solution would be for area shrimp to migrate north. But that isn’t an option. A band of warmer waters borders the Gulf of Maine, creating a natural barrier that prevents shrimp from seeking new habitats off Canada’s coast. So the local population is trapped, and its prospects don’t look good. “It’s very possible,” Armstrong says, “that the fishery could contract to just Maine before it’s over—and it may very well be over.”