It’s Maine shrimp season, without the shrimp

Sitting between Glen Libby’s desk at Port Clyde Fresh Catch and the armchair where his brother’s old dog, Red, likes to nap are two boxes full of “The Original Maine Shrimp Cookbook.” This slim spiral-bound volume includes contributions from various members of the brothers’ immediate family, whose shrimping history dates back nearly four decades in this coastal town about two hours northeast of Portland.

Libby loves the small, delicate Northern shrimp, known fondly here as Maine shrimp, and so do customers at his processing and distribution plant. He bought $700 worth of the books to sell.

“I have sold two,” Libby said.

He is unlikely to sell many more. Not long after the cookbook was published in 2009, its central ingredient began vanishing from Maine’s waters. In 2014, regulators closed the shrimp fishery (the term that encompasses both the fishing grounds and those who work there). The hope was that the struggling species would replenish itself if left undisturbed.

So far, according to scientists who survey the Gulf of Maine annually, it has not. Their most recent data show Northern shrimp numbers at a historic low for the 34 years in which they have been counting the crustacean, Pandalus borealis. Egg production is down. Survival rates for larvae are poor.

Last month, regulators voted to keep the fishery closed again through 2018, the fifth consecutive year without a shrimp harvest. That means no shrimping for the Libbys or the hundreds of other Maine fishermen who have long relied on it as a sweet paycheck (and meal) in the dark of winter.

What makes this an unusual closing is that fishermen are not being blamed for the immediate problem. Cod was overfished. Sea urchins were overfished, as Maine shrimp were in the late 1960s and 1970s. But the most widely accepted theory for the rapid decline of this species, which extends no farther south than the Gulf of Maine, is the same force being blamed for disruption of fisheries around the globe: climate change.

While summer swimmers may still gasp with shock on entering Maine’s chilly waters, the Gulf of Maine is warming, and becoming increasingly inhospitable to the shrimp. Average winter sea-surface temperatures have increased 4.5 degrees in Boothbay Harbor since 1906.

Plenty of shrimpers believe in climate change. Some do not. All feel stymied.

Patrick Keliher, Maine’s commissioner of marine resources, said he had never seen quite as many shrimpers turn out for a meeting as they did on Nov. 29, when a regulatory panel he sits on decided to keep the fishery closed. He raised their hopes, briefly, by arguing unsuccessfully for a “boutique” fishery that would have allowed shrimpers a small but not insignificant catch.

After all, many fishermen reason, if shrimp are going to continue to disappear because of an environmental force unlikely to be stopped, why not just reap what is left? Especially now that unmet demand has sent prices soaring.

Some shrimpers favor backing off on the shrimp to see if they can bounce back. And almost all question the scientific data. Surveys are often run with the help of fishermen, but instead of going where the shrimp typically cluster, the surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration go to mostly random, computer-selected spots to trawl.

“I don’t know if it is as bad as they think,” said Libby, whose brother, Gary, is chairman of the advisory panel to the Northern Shrimp Technical Committee, the voting body of the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission that decides the fate of the fishery each year.

But there is one thing most everyone here agrees on: It would be terrible to see the end of Maine shrimp, a touchstone of local tradition, identity and cuisine.

“Maine shrimp is the only shrimp I’ve ever eaten that has a taste to it,” said Arnie Gammage, a longtime shrimp trapper in South Bristol.

“It is probably my favorite seafood to eat,” said Andy Cantrell, who runs Cantrell Seafood, a fish store and distribution company in Topsham.

Last winter at auction, Cantrell bought 3,100 pounds of Maine shrimp, brought in by 13 lucky Mainers chosen to conduct a research catch designed to give NOAA more data. (They were allowed to catch only a tiny amount, but prices were so high, it paid to be in the game.)

For this coming, shrimpless season, he could buy Northern shrimp imported from Canada. Some Maine restaurants are already substituting it in shrimp dishes, particularly the fried ones. The Canadian shrimp fishery has also experienced declines, but still brings in far more than Maine ever did.

It’s the same species, but somehow not the same. “It is usually super small compared to our shrimp,” Cantrell said.

But some of Cantrell’s better customers are nostalgic shrimpers, for whom only Maine shrimp will do. Troy Bichrest, a fisherman in Cundy’s Harbor, paid $90 for 10 pounds of shrimp at Cantrell Seafood in February, nine times more than he used to be paid at the dock for his catch. He returned to Cantrell Seafood the next day, repeating this process four more times, until his family, including his elderly mother, had their fill.

Maine’s relationship with its shrimp is more complex than just love of a flavor.

“We in northern New England love them and have a proprietary relationship with them,” said Sam Hayward, a James Beard Award-winning chef and an owner of the Portland restaurants Fore Street and Scales.

Hayward buys the shrimp at every chance, for use in his home and his restaurants. When this year’s research catch was available, he put a nearly raw version, “shocked” with local vinegar, on Fore Street’s menu. That was in February, when a vast majority of his customers tend to be locals.

“People from away don’t necessarily get Pandalus borealis,” Hayward said.

Even native Mainers can understand why; Northern shrimp are not easy. Erin French, the chef of the Lost Kitchen, in Freedom, grew up picking shrimp for her father at his diner, the Ridge Top Restaurant in nearby Knox. He would make her sit at the table until every one was shelled. She hated it.

“I felt like it went on for days and everything smelled like shrimp, and you didn’t even want to eat them when you were done with it,” French said.

Then you cook them at your peril; they swiftly turn to mush. “It takes not more than one minute of cooking for peeled, raw shrimp,” Marjorie Standish wrote in her 1973 cookbook “Keep Cooking — the Maine Way.”

Glen Libby used to rush his catch from boat to pot to cook it live, like lobster. The simpler the better.

“A load of salt in the kettle,” said Craig Durant, who fishes in Cundy’s Harbor. “You go find a cold Pepsi, and then you pick until your fingers bleed.”

For some, the shrimp still seem like scraps. “Too much bother,” said food historian Sandy Oliver, who lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot Bay. “These little, tiny shrimp, with the heads cleaned off and popped out of their shell, what have you got? Not much.”

Shrimp season usually runs from December to April, when the seas are brutally cold and high, and a shrimper might have to break ice to get to the boat. In those months, shrimp, unlike lobster, can be caught fairly close to shore. And unlike the more restrictive scalloping or lobstering fisheries, shrimping is open to anyone willing to pay for a permit.

As a so-called shoulder fishery, shrimping — whether trawling with a net or setting traps — served multiple functions, including providing another income source for shrimpers who might spend the rest of the year chasing lobster, scallops, haddock and cod.

The catch was quick and clean; shrimp move in dense packs, handy for scooping. A fisherman stood a good chance of making his quota in a morning and heading back for the mooring. This eased the worries of wives waiting at home.

The catch also filled their pots and pans. The commercial shrimp fishery in New England sputtered into existence in fits and starts from 1927 to 1938, but fishermen had long been eating the shrimp they had caught in their nets while seeking other fish.

There was not a market for Gulf of Maine shrimp. As an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, environmentalist Rachel Carson noted even in 1943, when there were roughly 25 boats shrimping, that competition from South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico shrimp was hindering development of the Northern resource.

Home cooks were in all likelihood canning it — according to Don Lindgren, the owner of Rabelais (“Fine Books on Food and Drink,” as it calls itself) in Biddeford — and were using it in recipes. One of the earliest he has found was for “shrimps à la crème” in the 1906 book “Proved and Tested Cooking Receipts,” by the Ladies of the Universalist Society of Rockland.

But efforts were underway to raise the profile of Maine shrimp. A cannery in Rockport began processing shrimp in 1942. And around that time, Everett F. Greaton, the executive secretary of Maine’s Development Commission and a booster of all things Maine, presided with the governor over a dinner that included “Maine apples stuffed with Gulf of Maine shrimp.” Lindgren believes that was the first time Maine shrimp were granted such a place of honor.

The shrimping fleet grew steadily, except for a few years beginning in 1953 when the species disappeared; scientists pointed to a pulse of warm water in the Gulf of Maine. In 1969, the year of the biggest catch on record, 11,000 metric tons, there were 223 Maine vessels shrimping, and 42 from Massachusetts. The price at the dock was 13 cents a pound. (The average price in the last decade the fishery was open was 67 cents a pound.)

Prices like those indicate limited demand, but they also helped establish that proprietary feeling so many Mainers speak of. Maine shrimp belonged to the locals, and sold best in seaside shacks, deep-fried and piled up on a paper tray — with ketchup, tartar sauce or cocktail sauce on the side — or in a roll or a stew.

As recently as 10 years ago, shrimp was the stuff you could buy by the side of the road, from peddlers who parked their trucks along coastal roads. Gary Libby describes locals coming to the dock with empty buckets and filling them for $10 or less.

“One guy used to come down, and he’d give us a loaf of homemade bread and we’d give him a bucket of shrimp,” Libby said.

Shrimp were abundant — and loved, even by once-reluctant pickers. When French wrote her cookbook, “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine,” she included recipes for shrimp stew and a shrimp roll. But by the time it came out last spring, the recipes might have needed an expiration date.

“Who would have known?” French said. “It happened so fast.”

She approves of the continued closing of the fishery. “Until we really know,” she said. “Because when it is gone, it’s gone.”

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