Every time a new commercial fishery starts anywhere in the United States, it’s news!
With green or white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus) moving north into Virginia and Maryland waters, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and Maryland state legislators are cautiously setting the stage to establish commercial shrimp fisheries in areas of the bay and waters of both states.
Virginia has had an experimental ocean shrimp season since 2017 and in 2021 the VMRC approved regulations to establish an official season from October 1 to January 31 off Virginia Beach; established the fishing zones in Virginia Beach from the Cape Henry Lighthouse south to the North Carolina line and east to the three nautical mile limit; set catch and size limits, reporting requirements, and approval of gear used to harvest shrimp.
There are currently 12 licensed boatmen working in the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia Beach. Information from the east coast of Virginia has been limited and as such remains under an experimental permit currently with four participants.
The 2021 Maryland Legislature is creating a shrimp fishery through State Senate Bill 537 sponsored by State Senator Mary Beth Crozza and House Bill 1149 sponsored by the delegate Jay Jacobs. The general assembly has approved legislation that allows the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to establish the parameters of a shrimp fishing “pilot program” for certain commercial licenses. It is hoped that a pilot program will be in place by July 1, 2022. The Maryland Waterman’s Association approves the legislation, MWA President Robert T. Brown said. “They’re already doing it in Virginia, and it looks like it’s working there,” Brown says.
He says the MNR is considering opening the ocean fishery off Ocean City on the state’s east coast and on the bay side near Crisfield, Smith Island and Hoopers Island.
“The MNR has several things to settle before establishing the fishery,” says Brown. “We are, however, optimistic about the possibility of having a small shrimp fishery soon.
“We see this as a positive thing. Every little bit helps the boatmen,” says Brown. “We also see this as a fishery that could ease the pressure on the blue crab fishery. That might be a few boatmen less than you have crab.
The History of Shrimp Fishing in Virginia
In the 1990s, Patrick Geer, VMRC’s chief of fisheries management, worked for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s juvenile fish and blue crab trawl survey sampling Virginia tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay.
“Once in a while we would pull one to two pounds of shrimp all at once,” says Geer. “We knew early on that white shrimp were appearing in the bay, but catches were limited and sporadic from year to year.”
Geer says that in 2016, that same survey began to see a marked and steady increase in shrimp abundance, with at-sea samples for the Institute’s northeast area monitoring and assessment program. (NEAMAP) observing more than ten times more white shrimp from their fall surveys. between 2014 and 2020.
In 2017, ocean gillnetters in Virginia Beach contacted VMRC about large catches of shrimp in gillnets. They requested permission to try out a modified dredge rig to see how many could be caught.
“They took two old crab dredges, pulled the teeth out of the dredge, attached a 16-foot net, and experimented,” says Geer. “They caught enough shrimp that we established an experimental season that continued off Virginia Beach through the 2020 season,” he says. During the 2020 experimental season (October 1 through January 31, 2021), Virginia Boatmen from Virginia Beach caught 410,000 pounds of shrimp — almost exclusively white shrimp.
In 2018, the incumbents modified the gear, creating a lightweight 16′ x 4′ aluminum frame trawl pulled from the stern of the boat. Since then, it has been the only fishing gear approved by the VMRC.
The number of permitted vessels has increased from one in 2017 to eight vessels departing from Virginia Beach. With the new regulations in 2021, licenses for the Virginia Beach Shrimp Trawl Harvest Area were increased to 12 boats, with VMRC holding a lottery to issue four more additional licenses.
“We are trying to develop this fishery slowly,” says Geer. “Usually when a fishery starts it goes like hell and we have to work to catch up.”
Virginia shapes fishing around ships in the Range from 38′ to 50′ that make ocean day trips, he says.
“Virginia Beach anglers are doing well,” says Geer. “We don’t want big shrimp trawlers in Virginia waters. This fishery is directed towards small fishing vessels in the hope of providing boatmen with an alternative fishery. We want to limit the capitalization involved in the fishery to provide an affordable fishery.
To put it into perspective, the net used by Virginia fishermen is only 16 feet, while large shrimp trawlers in the Southwest and Gulf of Mexico typically pull a combination of nets up to 220 feet wide.
“The test net used by these large trawlers to assess their catches is more on the scale of what is used in the nascent Virginia fishery,” Geer said.
VMRC regulations also established a bycatch quota of 20 pints per day, or about 32 pounds of shrimp for all other commercial gear.
“The reason for the bycatch quota is that we get reports of shrimp caught in crab scrapes on the bay,” he says. “We’re not going to allow trawls inside the bay nor do we want these other gears allowed for other species to start targeting shrimp. We want these catches to be reported so that we can properly monitor the fishery.
Many Virginia Beach shrimpers sell their catch on the dock right next to the boat, Geer says. “Some have Facebook pages and let customers know what they have before they come back to the dock. When they return at the end of the day, customers line up. They sell to individual customers in bags of five pounds and restaurant owners come down and buy 100 pounds straight off the boats,” he says.
The increase in shrimp population is associated with warmer water temperatures. The waters off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay haven’t always been warm enough to support large numbers of white shrimp, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, warmer ocean temperatures in recent decades have pushed the species farther north into Virginia and Maryland waters, according to the agency.
There appear to be enough shrimp now to sustain a small commercial fishery. At least that’s what VMRC and Maryland DNR officials and commercial fishermen hope.