DEER ISLE, Maine -- In December, fisherman Dick Bridges hauls his lobster traps out of the water and rigs the Sea Queen 2, his 40-foot lobster boat, for shrimping. Until the end of March, Bridges will prowl the icy waters of Penobscot Bay in search of northern shrimp. Also called Maine shrimp or sweet shrimp, these tiny shellfish are prized by chefs.
''Shrimping is like a vacation for me," Bridges says. '' It's nice to do something other than lobster fishing. Besides, shrimp are good eating, boiled whole for a minute in seawater and then peeled and dipped in cocktail sauce or butter with vinegar -- they taste at least as good as lobster. "
Once an expensive wild-caught delicacy, shrimp have become the boneless chicken breast of crustaceans. Cheap and plentiful, these curly-tailed conveniences have overtaken canned tuna as America's favorite seafood. Most shrimp we see in the markets is farm-raised in Southeast Asia or Latin America, frozen before shipping, then defrosted by the fish market that sells it. Wild Maine shellfish are almost always fresh, but they're small. One pound can number anywhere from 30 to 70. Consumers have the idea that when buying shrimp, bigger is usually better. Popular cocktail shrimp from warm waters weigh nearly an ounce apiece and make for a satisfying mouthful. But Maine shrimp are the shrimpiest shrimp around, known for their sweetness and firm texture rather than for their impressive size.
During their brief season, Maine shrimp (Pandalus borealis) arrive at New England markets with their heads still on. Delicate, tender, bright red, and glistening, these sweet morsels are perfect enough to eat raw.
''Most shrimp come with quite a bit of baggage," says Santi Roberts, a fisheries research analyst for the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. ''Nearly 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in America are imported, either wild caught on foreign trawlers or farm raised in saltwater pond systems." According to Roberts, ''the clearing of salt marshes and mangrove forests and the inefficient use of wild fish stocks for shrimp food are causing serious habitat damage all over" Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Imported wild-caught shrimp aren't much better. The significant number of endangered sea turtles caught along with the shrimp and trawler damage to the seabed are equally serious problems of the wild shrimp fisheries. Roberts says that better legislation in the United States has alleviated some of these problems, but current fishing methods are still less than ideal. ''The trawls are still nonselective and cause real damage to the ecology of the area," he says.
Maine's modest harvest of northern shrimp, says Roberts -- the catch in 2003 was 2 million pounds -- offers a slightly more sustainable option to foreign shrimp. ''Trawled and especially trap-caught northern shrimp are a better option," he says. ''The trouble is, they're so small, and outside of New England they're difficult to find."
Maine shrimp begin their life cycle as males and end up females. After a year of growth close to shore, the male shrimp become sexually mature and swim away from the coast in search of the opposite sex. In water about 500 feet deep, the males mate with females and then, over a period of two years, undergo a sex change. Meanwhile, the females swim closer to shore to release their eggs.
By December, Maine's inshore waters are full of female shrimp laden with eggs and ready to be caught in the traps and trawlers' nets. With pickups sporting hand-painted ''Native Shrimp" signs, the fishermen gather along the roadsides, hawking fresh shrimp, usually for $1.50 to $2 a pound. Supermarket fish counters stock the shrimp whole or peeled, clam shacks sell them deep fried in batter or crumbs, and upscale restaurants treat the crustaceans with the reverence usually reserved for truffles or caviar.
At Hugo's restaurant in Portland, chef Rob Evans poaches the shrimp in olive oil and serves them as an appetizer with pickled beets, goat cheese, and a compote of pink grapefruit and ginger. Evans tops the dish with whole raw shrimp, their tails peeled and heads left on. ''I actually prefer the shrimp raw," he says. ''They're so fresh and briny, they just pop in your mouth."
In Boston, Maine shrimp make their seasonal appearance at better fish markets, sushi bars, and on upscale menus. At Great Bay restaurant in the Hotel Commonwealth, chef Jeremy Sewall buys live Maine shrimp from his fisherman cousin in York. ''We serve them ceviche-style," he says, ''cooked" in a marinade of lime and blood orange juice with jalapeno peppers.
Wulf's fish market in Brookline carries northern shrimp ($3.98 with heads on; $6.98 with heads off; $9.98 peeled). ''Maine shrimp are a unique delicacy," says owner Alan Wulf. ''They're completely different than any other shrimp you would eat." For customers who haven't experienced the joys of this local treat, Wulf is glad to sprinkle a few whole shrimp with salt, microwave them for 30 seconds, and offer them piping hot.
''The shrimp steam in their shells and come out full of flavor and perfectly cooked," says the fishmonger. '' I tell people to suck the juice out of the head and eat the eggs and meat from the shell. People can't believe how sweet they are."