It’s Maine Shrimp Season, Without the Shrimp


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

Even native Mainers can understand why; Northern shrimp aren’t 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’d 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,” Ms. 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.”

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The harbor in Port Clyde. Scientists say the number of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine is declining because of warming waters they link to climate change.

Credit
Sarah Rice for The New York Times

For some, the shrimp still seem like scraps. “Too much bother,” said the 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.

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The cookbook that the Libby family published in 2009. Glen Libby bought $700 worth of them to sell to customers, but demand is scant, given the absence of Maine shrimp. “I have sold two,” he said.

Credit
Sarah Rice for The New York Times

There wasn’t a market for Gulf of Maine shrimp. As an aquatic biologist for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the 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 also 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.” Mr. Lindgren believes that was the first time Maine shrimp was 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,” Mr. Libby said.

Shrimp were abundant — and loved, even by once-reluctant pickers. When Ms. 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?” Ms. 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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