By Daniel Lovering
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Maine's lobstermen and seafood processors are seeking permission to harvest more shrimp in the only native habitat for northern shrimp in the United States.
Limits for harvesting the small sweet shrimp have been steadily dropping in recent years, with the 2012 quota at 2,000 metric tons, just half of the 4,000 metric ton limit for 2011.
The seasonal lobster industry, which depends on shrimp harvesting in the slow winter months to help provide year-round employment, has started a petition drive to ease those limits.
The movement called "Save Our Shrimp" seeks to relax the quota to a reported 4,500 metric tons. Quotas are set by a government panel that manages shrimp resources for Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
"It's the only opportunity for a commercial fisherman to earn a paycheck during the winter," said John Norton, president and CEO of Portland-based Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc.
"It tides us over for those months," Norton said.
Lobsters are harvested year-round, but fewer lobsters are caught during the winter months, according to an employee at Portland Shellfish Co.
Shrimp season started January 2 and will end once the quota is reached.
Wildlife officials say the 2,000 metric ton quota is necessary because northern shrimp are less plentiful than in previous years.
"There's times when the stock doesn't allow for the fishery we had last year," said Mike Waine, fishery management plan coordinator at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in Arlington, Virginia.
"That's a challenge for everybody. The managers don't want to see that either. Nobody wants to see that," Waine said.
While lobsters are harvested in traps, northern shrimp are primarily caught in nets dragged by trawlers. Sometimes called pink shrimp, the cold water crustaceans are small, with 38-50 to per pound compared to 4-20 per pound for warm water shrimp. Known for their sweet flavor, they are often used for sushi.
About 1,500 jobs in Maine depend on the shellfish and last year there were 276 licensed shrimp boats in the state.
"We consider shrimp an essential segment of our overall business model since our primary business - lobster processing - is seasonal," said Jeff Holden, president of Portland Shellfish Co. said in a statement.
Although the market for northern shrimp is far smaller than that of lobster -- about $50 million versus $400 million annually -- it helps companies pay for staff and facilities also used for lobster during winter months when lobsters are unavailable, Norton said.
Cutting the harvest limit in half - to 2,000 metric tons - could hurt the state's shrimp industry for years to come, he said.
"If we can't fill our customers' orders, they go somewhere else," he said, referring to shrimp suppliers in Canada, China and Southeast Asia. "We lose our credibility as a supplier."
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Paul Thomasch)