'N' is for Northern Shrimp

A short introduction to the northern shrimp fishery adjacent to Nunatsiavut, prepared by Aaron Dale, Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat.

Shrimp are interesting animals. There are two principal species in the Northwest Atlantic: striped shrimp (pandalus montagui) in more northerly waters, and in more southerly waters… “northern” shrimp (pandalus borealis). Northern shrimp are fairly cosmopolitan actually, ranging in the Northwest Atlantic from the New England States (Gulf of Maine), to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Grand Banks, the Labrador Sea, Ungava Bay, and Davis Strait. They are widespread and numerous! In Shrimp Fishing Areas 4 and 5, which is to say the waters adjacent to Labrador, the 2018 biomass estimate puts the number at about 150,000 tonnes. That’s enough shrimp to fill 650,000 bath tubs, or 350 million shrimp rings, give or take.

This is not to say that there are no concerns for conservation and management. The biomass estimate is actually reduced considerably from where it has been – down by 53% since 2010 in Area 5 (southern Labrador), and 73% since 2012 in Area 4 (northern Labrador). The annual exploitation rate (the percentage that are caught and sold) has ranged from about 10-35%. There are very real questions about how many shrimp there are, how many can be sustainably harvested, who should have the right to harvest where, and how sea bugs can be converted into the most social, cultural and economic good. These are the challenges and opportunities that concern us.

But let’s start with the northern shrimp themselves, for they are interesting in their own right. Northern shrimp are a crustacean (like lobsters, crabs, and woodlice). They have six legs for walking and four for eating. They are pinkish (they are sometime called “pink shrimp”) and about the length of a finger. Northern shrimp are omnivorous, like bears and humans, meaning that they eat both plants and animals (albeit very little ones). They are migratory, like geese and caribou, migrating daily up and down through the water column (up to the surface to feed at night, back down to the bottom to rest for the day). Northern shrimp are protanderous hermaphrodytes, unlike bears, humans, geese and caribou. All northern shrimp begin life male, and transition to female at the age of about four or five. They live the rest of their days as females, surviving until the age of 8 or so. Females are larger and the primary target for commercial fisheries around the world. Northern shrimp are also tasty and catchable, they can sustain substantial fishing pressure, and they can be sold to world markets for more than they cost to catch, process, and ship. These are perhaps their most interesting qualities – or certainly those which raise the most pressing challenges and opportunities in terms of distributing access and benefits.

These questions are answered annually in International, national, and regional forums (although not always to everyone’s satisfaction). Various interests appeal to various principles, including historical attachment (we developed the fishery, have invested in good faith, and have the most to lose), economic viability (our operation will not be viable below a certain threshold, so what may seem a small or proportional cut could in effect eliminate us from the fishery entirely), adjacency (natural resources should primarily benefit people and communities living adjacent to those resources), Land Claims Agreements and Indigenous participation (comprehensive land claims agreements specifically guarantee access, or generally provide for increased Indigenous access to economic opportunities from which Indigenous peoples had historically been excluded), and others. Access decisions can be contentious, either because the principles themselves conflict, or because the starting point (status quo) is considered by some to be inequitable. There are no easy answers, and there is no right answer per se, but the processes in place are extremely effective in limiting harvest, and at least somewhat effective in sharing benefits.

Adjacent to Nunatsiavut, in Areas 4 and 5, the total quota for 2018 was 37,725 tonnes. This was shared amongst offshore licence-holders (these are the original licences that developed the fishery in the 1970s and 1980s), a coalition of northern offshore licence-holders, an inshore fleet (including fishers from Southern Labrador and the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland adversely affected by the cod moratorium), Indigenous Governments and Organizations (including the Nunatsiavut Government, the NunatuKavut Community Council, and the Innu Nation), and fish used to finance scientific research. There is one processing facility in Labrador, at Mary’s Harbour.

In 2016 the Nunatsiavut Government was allocated approximately 10% of the quota in Areas 4 and 5. The fishery was prosecuted inshore, with landings at Mary’s Harbour. The value of the the Nunatsiavut harvest to the region was estimated at approximately $7,000,000 in 2016, and employs 23 beneficiaries directly in the harvesting sector. In addition, the shrimp fishery contributes approximately $65,000 annually to the Nunatsiavut Commercial Fisheries Fund. In addition to conservation and equitable access, managers are working to maximize social and economic benefits to the region.

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