The Gulf of Maine shrimp fishing season came to an end late Friday night with a whimper.
The season officially ended at 11:59 p.m. Friday, although boats for the most part stopped fishing weeks ago because of a lack of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine.
This year’s harvest will go down as the smallest since 1978, when the fishery was shut down altogether.
Through Wednesday, boats from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts had netted and trapped about 662,000 pounds, with Maine fishermen accounting for about 80 percent of the catch.
By comparison, last year’s harvest came in at 5.3 million pounds — and the season had to be shut down early on the premise that had, by late February, already exceeded their allowable catch of 4.9 million pounds.
The struggling shrimp season was just one more downswing for the struggling New England fisheries, with groundfishermen facing regulatory Gulf of Maine cod limit cuts of 77 percent when their season begins May 1.
Fishermen and elected state and federal officials have all called for NOAA Northeast Regional Director John Bullard to instead extend the current interim limits, with a cut of 22 percent from 2011, for another year, but he and other administration officials have refused back off the initial numbers.
When NOAA regulators set the quota for this shrimp season, fishermen thought the 1.4 million-pound catch limit would be fished up quickly. Instead, the catch came up so paltry that regulators agreed to allow boats to fish seven days a week instead of two they were initially allotted. Federal officials also lifted the 800-pound trip limit for shrimp trappers.
With their quota cut by 74 percent — and with warnings that the Gulf of Maine shrimp population was in bad shape due to warm ocean temperatures — New England harvesters, including some who work out of Gloucester, expected this to be a rough shrimp season. But by late March, it was apparent that the season an even bigger bust than anybody anticipated.
Gary Libby, a fisherman in Port Clyde, Maine, said he caught 800 pounds of the small, sweet shrimp on his best day this winter. Last year, he averaged 2,000 pounds a day.
“We were expecting it to be bad going in, but we weren’t expecting it to be as bad as it was,” he said.
Shrimp provide a small but important fishery for New England fishermen each winter, including some out of Gloucester and Cape Ann. The shrimp fleet last year included 225 boats from Maine, and combined 31 from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The new season began Jan. 23 for net fishermen, who were allotted about 1.2 million pounds of the harvest. Fishermen who catch shrimp in traps began their season Feb. 1, with a quota of under 200,000 pounds.