To Mainers, cold-water shrimp pulled from the Gulf of Maine in midwinter by a shrinking fleet of fisherman are many things: fresh, sweet, delicious, affordable, precious.
"The absolute best thing about them is that they are almost exclusively ours," boasts Portland-based architect and Maine shrimp lover Ric Quesada. He revels in the fact that Maine shrimp don't travel well out of state. "You don't run errands with these in your car. They want to go right home and be eaten," he says.
Upwards of 90 percent of the U.S. harvest of Pandalus borealis comes from the coast of Maine, with the remainder pulled in from waters off New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
The small crustaceans with bulbous black eyes are colloquially dubbed "salad shrimp" because of their 2- to 4-inch physiques and the frequency with which they top Caesar salads in Maine. Mainers contend their shrimp have a sweeter, more delicate flavor than those reared in the Gulf of Mexico or shipped in from Asia, most likely because of the colder water, they say.
The season for Maine shrimp is always fairly short, driven by the life cycle of these migratory hermaphrodites. Maggie Hunter, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says Maine shrimp sexually mature as males at about 2 1/2 years of age in the muddy bottoms of the deep, cold canyons of the Gulf of Maine. Roughly a year later, they transform into females and mating soon starts. When they are about four or five years old, they migrate to slightly warmer waters closer to shore and there they spawn.
It's at that point in their lives, when the ladies approach the shore between December and February, that they are caught for Mainers' consumption.
But this year Mainers are going to be consuming much less shrimp than they have in the past. The season is starting late to allow more shrimp to spawn before they are caught. And in December, regulators set the allowable catch for the species at just 72 percent of the 2012 level.
The overall allowable catch is divided between fishermen that drag nets behind their boats (a process called trawling) and fishermen that use traps. The season for trawlers began on Jan. 23, and they're only allowed to shrimp on Mondays and Wednesday mornings. Fisherman using traps — which typically bring in more uniformly sized shrimp because holes in the trap let the little ones escape — can't begin their shrimping until Feb. 5.
How long the season will last is anyone's guess as weather and the shrimpers' ability to locate the shrimp both play a role. Estimates range up to to six weeks, but many think it will be a lot shorter.
If early sales are any indication, the shrimp haul won't last long in the shops. Harbor Fish in Portland received 180 pounds of shrimp on Jan. 23 at 11:30 a.m., and sold out in less than three hours.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the fishery, contends the limits are necessary because the little gals have been overfished for the past three years, all surveys of the Maine shrimp population are trending downward and there are alarmingly few shrimp mature enough to make the migration to the shore.
The hope is that cutting back on the allowable catch will allow the fishery to return to sustainable levels. But recent samples don't bode well for a quick turnaround, Hunter says.
Sammy Viola is a commercial fisherman who has shrimped out of Maine's Portland Harbor on and off since 1994. He says catch limits are unnecessary. "Maine shrimp are so sensitive to both water temperature and salinity that they are either going to be there or not be there," he says. "If they are not there from one year to the next, we can't catch them, can we?"
Viola says he'll cast his shrimp nets this season, lured by a wholesale price for whole shrimp that's about 50 cents higher per pound than last year. But he also fears that if he doesn't go shrimping this year, regulators will decide to ban him next year. Regulators have made no calls yet about the 2014 season, but the previous year's haul does sometimes factor into the determination of an individual fisherman's quotas for other species, like cod.
Quotas aside, Mainers offer plenty of advice on how they plan to prepare as much of the rare Maine shrimp as they can get their hands on.
Viola will eat some raw on his boat. "They crunch like popcorn," he says.
Quesada first brines them in a salt solution and then marinates them very quickly in olive oil, garlic, herbs and cayenne pepper. He arranges them whole on a very hot, cast iron plancha, turns them once and then calls his family over.
"They should be eaten at the stove. Bringing them to the table is almost wasted effort," he says.
Shrimp cookers all admit to freezing some of the meats for future use and some of the shells for stock. But they say that frozen Maine shrimp isn't quite the same as fresh.
When Quesada pulls a half-pound bag from the freezer, he only employs them as a garnish, for paella or on seafood pasta, for example.
"It's just a little hocus-pocus I do to conjure up the image of the real Maine shrimp season," he says.
Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer and recipe developer who recently relocated to Maine and is currently enjoying her first shrimp season there.