Giant Asian tiger shrimp invade US waters

giant tiger shrimp gulf of mexico
Screen capture The Wall Street Journal

Well, shrimp the size of your forearm are now a thing we can worry about.

Cameron McWhirter at The Wall Street Journal reports on the invasive predator shrimp that have recently been showing up in growing numbers in the Gulf of Mexico:

Scientists at the marine research lab on nearby Dauphin Island have identified the creature, now living in a blue bucket in a back room of the lab's aquarium, as something they haven't caught in Alabama waters before: a juvenile Asian tiger shrimp—an indication that the invasive species is now reproducing here and could threaten U.S. shrimp species, they say.

Adult tiger shrimp, whose native habitat stretches from southern Japan through Southeast Asia to South Africa, are known for distinctive black stripes, can grow to the length of a man's arm and weigh as much as a pound. While the monster shrimp are just as edible as U.S. shrimp, marine scientists are trying to figure out whether they will upset local ecosystems and possibly supplant smaller brown and white shrimp, mainstays of the U.S. shrimping industry.

Invasive species are always a problem because they did not evolve alongside the local species. The Asian tiger shrimp are especially worrisome bcause unlike regular US shrimp, which are scavengers, the tiger shrimp are aggressive predators that eat shrimp, crabs and clams. This screenshot from the WSJ video shows how much larger the tiger shrimp are than the white and brown shrimp that are native in US waters.

The Wall Street Journal /Screen capture

Joshua Peguero at PBS reports on how aquaculture may be to blame for initially introducing the exotic species to US waters:

How they arrived in the Gulf is not entirely known, but many scientists believe their first grand exodus occurred in August 1988. That's when more than 2,000 animals are believed to have escaped from the Waddell Mariculture Center in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Some 300 were caught in open water over the next six months, but then their numbers dropped off. In 2006, a hurricane in the Caribbean likely led to the further release of the animals from an aquaculture center in the Dominican Republic.

Aquaculture facilities are land-based sites that conduct research, farm seafood and operate along the coast where there's easy access to water. Most of the animals raised there are non-native, a potential threat in the event of an escape.

Ray Bauer, a biology professor at the University of Louisiana, lists the dangers of farming non-native species. Hurricanes and storms, he said, are common causes of accidental release from aquaculture facilities. He points to the water hyacinth, an invasive plant, and the Asian carp, which was introduced into the Mississippi River during a flood and traveled quickly up to the Great Lakes, where it's now "wreaking havoc" on native marine life.

Another contributing factor is that global warming is causes US coastal waters to warm, which is the habitat the Asian tiger shrimp prefer, allowing for them to more easily reproduce.

This is just one of countless examples that show just how important interconnectedness is to ecosystem balance. Growing exotic shrimp in an aquarium by the ocean seemed like a good idea at the time, but now a huge segment of the seafood industry in the Southeast United States may be at risk as a result.

Tags: Animals | Ecology

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