Warm weather making Maine shrimp supply scarce

Shrimp fishermen pull in their haul off the coast of Maine.
CBS News

(CBS News) FIVE ISLANDS, Maine - Up north, it's too warm.

A rise in ocean temperatures is killing off the iconic livelihood of New England fishermen. Two years ago, they hauled 14 million pounds of shrimp, but this year they'll only catch a tenth of that.

Off the rocky coastline of Five Islands, Maine, Ronald Pinkham has been up before dawn, setting traps for nearly 60 years. He said the catch today is terrible.

A third-generation fisherman, he's caught lobster in spring, summer and fall and shrimp each winter when lobsters move offshore. But, that annual rhythm is changing.

Pinkham and his stern man Derek Colby worry the shrimp season which used to last months could now be just a day. It means it's possible Colby won't have a job.

"Normally we're done November lobstering, and that's going to last until -- the money I made is going to last until April when we start lobstering again.," Colby said.

The cold water shrimp population has dropped by 20 million pounds since 2009. Researcher Don Perkins studies these waters and says they don't know if it's due to climate change, a natural cycle or both.

"This past year is one of the warmest years we've had here," Perkins said. "The bottom temperature here in the Gulf of Maine where shrimp are caught have been 3 degrees to 5 degrees F above normal. That's a huge increase in temperature in the marine environment."

Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner Patrick Keliher said the shrimp stocks off Maine are in "critical condition" right now. It's his job to protect the fishery, so he and a committee took the unprecedented step of limiting the shrimp catch to less than 1.5 million pounds -- down 72 percent from last year.

"It takes a while for this population to catch back up," Keliher said. "It's not a rosy picture at all. It's very difficult, very difficult for the managers, but it's a hell of a lot more difficult for the fishermen."

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The 300 shrimp traps that cost Pinkham $85 a piece may never make it out of his backyard this year.

"That's three or four people without work, so you know it kind of snowballs down the line," Pinkham said.

With the restrictions on shrimping, it may be that the only thing Pinkham and Colby catch this winter is a beautiful sunrise.