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NEW ORLEANS – Though tasty with lemon and garlic butter, Asian tiger shrimp are spreading through the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard and menacing those areas’ ecosystems.
The crustaceans can measure up to 13 inches long and weigh nearly a pound, with dark and white stripes circling their bodies. They can be very disruptive to the Gulf’s ecosystem, says James Morris, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, N.C.
Originally from the western Pacific Ocean, the shrimp have been spotted sporadically in U.S. waters for the past two decades. But last year, 331 were counted in the Gulf of Mexico, up from 32 in 2010 and just six in 2006, according to a tally kept by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Scientists are trying to figure out where the invasive shrimp came from. Theories include that they spawned from a batch that escaped a lab two decades ago or that they immigrated here in the ballast water of ocean-crossing ships.
DNA testing is expected to show whether they are breeding in the Gulf or were swept in from other regions, Morris says.
“We’re in the very beginning stages here,” he says. “But the reason we’re alarmed about this is that we’ve been monitoring this species for 15 years, and last year the numbers suddenly increased tenfold in one year.”
Like most other shrimp, the jumbo prawns are cannibalistic, Morris says, and because of their size, they can gobble up many of their smaller Gulf cousins and their larvae.
They also compete for the native shrimp’s food supply and spread through their environs, disrupting the eco-balance. Tiger shrimp spawn between 50,000 and 1 million eggs a cycle, he says. Testing will determine whether the tiger shrimp are in the early stages of a population boom.
Four tiger shrimp have been counted this year, but their true numbers won’t surface until after shrimp season this summer and fall, Morris says. “Once they take hold, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate them,” he says.R Soft Web Hosting