Celebrating the former Chatham Arctic shrimp fishery

Feb 21, 2023 | Charting the Past

In a former life, we went fishing for shrimp with Bill Amaru.

By Bill Amaru

If “jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron, what is “very small shrimp”?

Whatever you call it, shrimp with the Latin name pandalus borealis, or Arctic shrimp, is big with flavor and eye appeal.

This crustacean does not come from the warm Gulf of Mexico or the coasts of our Southeastern states. Neither is it “farm raised” like cousins tiger and brown shrimp. Arctic shrimp are exactly what they sound like, a creature of the cold and dark waters of northern oceans.

In the western Atlantic, their historical range is from beneath the ice of the polar regions down the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland, across Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. From there they extend along Nova Scotia into the Gulf of Maine to a point east of Cape Cod. Their southern range ends abruptly in the Great South Channel, off Nauset inlet half-way down the backside of the Cape.

They are found in the northern Pacific Ocean as well, always seeking the coldest waters of the Bering Sea.

Pandalus Borealis are one of few creatures that change sex (sexual dimorphism). They all start as males and between the ages of two and three years all become females. Life expectancy is four to five years.

Do you like the color of wild salmon? Thank Arctic shrimp for that.

If you have never heard of this tasty crustacean, you are not alone. However, if you are one of the lucky few who remember, in the deepest part of winter and into early April, seeing them for sale in markets and along sides of roads, you are fortunate.

The names you would have seen next to displays would have been “red shrimp, Maine shrimp, or pop-corn shrimp.”

The color is the first thing you would have noticed: the brightest red (other than the reddest roses) found in nature. As noted, small, usually about 30 to 40 per pound.

Then you would have been amazed at the price. Can you imagine a fresh, perhaps less than day-old ocean shrimp for around $5.00/pound? A fisherman was ecstatic to get $1.25/pound and the most my boat ever got was just that. But it was the 1980s and early 90’s and that was big money back then.

A day’s catch, taken by a small-mesh trawl, was about 1000 to 2000 pounds. An occasional trip of up to 5000 pounds did occur. I remember trawlerman Fred Bennett landing several really big trips in the late 1980s with his 50-foot, Cape Cod-built boat, F/V Sea Bag. My F/V Joanne-A III was 44 feet and Mark Farnham’s F/V Honey-Do was 42. The three of us usually fished the same grounds and compared tows, separating out the “chaff” (exaggerations) from the “wheat” (semi-truths).

We usually made four, two-hour tows with our net. Deep winter is not an easy time of year to be from eight to 18 miles offshore; if the seas were less than six feet we would be overjoyed. If we didn’t have to knock ice off the rigging and constantly run seawater to de-ice the decks, we were fortunate. Yet with all the challenges this fishery presented, we considered it the best and most fun of all we did.

One thing that made this fishery such a positive experience was the social nature of the harvest. Dedicated friends and neighbors would be waiting at the dock for our arrival late on cold afternoons, with plastic bags and cash in hand. We’d pass up buckets of the still-moving shrimp. With a pail of cold sea water (the only thing you should ever cook shrimp in), people were away to the kitchen.

To many, a bottle of vodka, Rose’s lime juice and a gang over for company was as close to heaven as you could get in the middle of January on Cape. The smiles of the faces (and the invitations to join in) was what added to the pleasure of catching these beautiful creatures.

One minute in boiling water, no rinsing, plopped steaming hot into a big stainless steel bowl. It was the best.

Another feature, and perhaps most important, was the way this fishery was managed. Being very small, shrimp must be caught using a very fine mesh. The regulations called for a mesh with an opening no smaller than 1 ¾”. This means very small as well as large fish are captured along with the target species.

We were not allowed to catch fish on a shrimp trip. To eliminate this happening, a device called a “nordmore grate” (named for the Norwegian town where it was developed) is inserted into the narrow end of a net. It is made of thin rods of stainless steel welded into a grid pattern. These rods are spaced one inch apart. Above the grate, a hole is cut in the net to allow fish out, the shrimp passing through into the capture portion of the net. This ingenious  contrivance produces a catch virtually free from any bycatch.

For us in the Northeast, it all came to an unfortunate end some 20 years ago. Catches had been falling off. Surveys were showing fewer and fewer shrimp, especially in southern reaches of our fishery. Bottom water temperatures were climbing. The warming sea water, already at the edge of their tolerance, was now not cold enough to support these shrimp in our southern New England waters.

A closure of the fishery to protect large spawning females was thought to be necessary and perhaps a resurgence would follow. It has been 15 years since the closure and annual surveys show fewer, not greater numbers of shrimp in our waters.

This decline is not mirrored in Canada. Enormous tows of shrimp are still taken off Nova Scotia; factory ships fish for them through winter ice near the Arctic Circle.

For us at the rapidly warming end of their range, the fishery is but a memory, unlikely to return.

So perhaps our shrimp is akin to a canary in the coal mine. While we struggle to understand what a warming environment will mean, others are already adjusting and hoping to find new ways to share those things that bring people together.

My shrimp net, nordmore grate and all, lies under a tarp in my backyard. I doubt I will ever put it back on the boat, but I can’t get myself to take it to the dump either.

Bill Amaru writes from his Cape Cod fishing shanty, right next to his well-preserved shrimp net.


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