Northern shrimp once supported large and commercially important fisheries. Most of the catch was peeled mechanically and frozen, though some was sold fresh in local markets.
The first northern shrimp trawl fishery began in 1915 in Thomas Bay near Petersburg in Southeast Alaska. Trawl fisheries began in 1952 in lower Cook Inlet (Kachemak Bay) and in 1958 around Kodiak Island. Russian and Japanese trawlers harvested shrimp from the Bering Sea and Aleutians in the 1960s, but that foreign fishery was replaced with a domestic fishery in 1972. The Prince William Sound fishery began in the early 1970s followed by the Yakutat fishery in 1976 and the fishery along the outer Kenai Peninsula coast in the late 1970s.
Most of these fisheries were fairly short-lived. The Kodiak fleet and shore plants were badly damaged in the 1964 earthquake but quickly resurged and peaked during the early 1970s. Kodiak area catches then declined during the 1970s and effort shifted south to Chignik and the Alaska Peninsula. The Kachemak Bay fishery peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but was closed due to low shrimp abundance in 1986. The outer Kenai coast fishery was closed in 1997. The Prince William Sound fishery shifted to targeting sidestripe shrimp following a drop in northern shrimp catches during the 1980s. The Yakutat fishery peaked in 1980-81 and produced relatively small catches through the 1993-94 season and, most recently, the 2004-05 season.
The Southeast trawl fishery has been the longest and most stable fishery. Catches peaked in the late 1950s and early 1960s but continued through the 2004 season. Harvest declined steadily since the 1997-98 season due to competition with shrimp products from the Atlantic and Pacific Northwest. The market finally collapsed during the 2005-06 season when the main buyer in Petersburg shut down after an 80-year history in the fishery. Most trawl effort in recent years has been directed toward larger and more valuable sidestripe shrimp.
Northern shrimp are typically harvested using otter or beam trawls. Otter trawls use “otter boards” or “trawl doors” that weight the net and spread it open while being towed behind the vessel. They are most effective on smooth and level bottom, but can be outfitted with roller gear (wheels) to allow fishing on rougher bottoms where the net might become snagged. The design and greater size of otter trawls relative to beam trawls allow larger catches.
In comparison, the beam trawl is a relatively simple gear type in appearance and function. A strong wooden or metal beam with metal “shoes” connected to each end of the beam hold the mouth of the net open. Beam trawls fish best on flat bottoms, but can effectively fish some gradual side slopes and irregular bottoms. Beam trawls are the only shrimp trawl allowed in Southeast Alaska where otter trawls were prohibited in 1997 by the Board of Fisheries. Beam trawls were also used in the Kodiak area in bays and nearshore waters beginning in 1971, with peak participation of 16 beam trawl vessels in the 1974-75 season.