The growing popularity of tasty Prince William Sound shrimp has prompted Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists to cut the number of pots recreational shrimpers can soak this year.
A year ago, strong preseason population estimates allowed biologists to increase the number of recreational pots per boat to eight. That's three more than the five established by regulation. There's no limit on how many shrimp may be taken in each pot.
Sport, subsistence and personal use shrimpers ended up exceeding the target harvest of 79,200 pounds by nearly 11 percent.
This year, biologists are estimating a surplus of 132,000 pounds of spot shrimp -- down nearly 4 percent from 2009.
At the same time, the number of free permits issued to sports or personal use shrimpers has been growing. It's easy to see why.
"The shrimp are delicious," Fish and Game biologist Matt Miller said.
Jim Muhar, who sometimes takes clients shrimping aboard his Alaska Prince William Sound Charters, said he's noticed an uptick in the number of buoys attached to shrimp pots in popular areas.
"It sure seems like there are a lot of people shrimping now," he said. "All of the little boats now seem to have shrimp pots. Buoys are everywhere in areas where there's pretty good shrimping."
Since the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier opened more than a decade ago, the western side of Prince William Sound has increasingly turned into a playground for boaters, anglers, hunters and other recreationalists. But the economy is a double-edged sword -- $4 a gallon gas prices keep some people close to home while, at the same time, boosting the desire to find recreational opportunities within easy driving distance.
"It was thoroughly amazing to me how many new faces I saw last year," Palmer shrimp pot builder Steve Kalek said after manning his booth at the Great Alaskan Sportsman Show in Anchorage a year ago. "A lot of people say, 'Hey we gotta try this too.'
"It amazes me to have such a nice fishery here -- in such a beautiful place."
Kalek supports the cutback to five pots per boat.
"I didn't think it was such a good idea going to eight," he said. "I believe in erring on the side of safety. Let's keep this fishery going.
"The only ones I hear whining about it is the people who only get out two or three times a year. Sure, you'll catch more shrimp with eight, but 10 years down the road they may all be gone."
For the next month or so until king salmon start nosing into Cook Inlet, there are few alternatives for those anxious to be on the water catching dinner. Halibut are available, though big fish won't show until mid-summer. Hooligan start returning next month.
A year ago, the state fisheries board passed a Prince William Sound commercial shrimping plan that allows a commercial harvest when the surplus estimate exceeds 110,000 pounds.
Some 155 commercial boats, hauling up to 20 pots apiece, registered for the first Prince William Sound commercial shrimp fishery in 19 years last year.
Several areas popular with recreational shrimpers are off-limits to commercial boats, however.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional biologist Dan Bosch said slightly lower water temperatures in the sound over the past few years favor crustaceans over finfish, triggering something of a population boom. That, in turn, has led to growing interest in sport shrimping, which entails an investment of several hundred dollars in pots, lines and buoys to get started -- as well as the cost of a boat or charter.
Reach Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.