Non-native shrimp raising questions, eyebrows

The Island PacketOctober 30, 2011 

Many sea creatures -- from sharks to stingrays -- have made Tonya Desalve squirm during her decades of working at Benny Hudson Seafood on Hilton Head Island.

But nothing compares to the tiger shrimp in her freezer.

"This thing is scary," she said. "It's by far the ickiest thing I've ever seen."

At a third of a pound and more than a foot long -- Desalve says hers spans from thumb to thumb when she holds it with both hands -- a mature tiger shrimp makes its more common brown and white relatives look, well, shrimpy.

Similarly troubling is the rising rate at which the non-native tiger shrimp are being caught off the coast of South Carolina this fall.

According to data compiled by a federal task force, more than 70 have been reported caught off the state's coast this year. But that number is likely dwarfed by the number that have been caught and tossed back into the ocean.

"One of my friends says he's caught about 25 this year," said local shrimper Skip Toomer. "We're definitely seeing more and more of them around."

Tiger shrimp were first noticed in local waters in 2006. Their population has remained small and fairly constant until a sharp increase this year, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Researchers and shrimpers agree that the local tiger shrimp population is increasing, but no one is sure how they got here.

There's no shortage of theories.

"We've heard that they may have come from the west coast of Africa or up through the Caribbean from Venezuela," said Al Stokes, manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton.

Others suggest they came in the wake of powerful tropical storms or as stowaways in the ballast tanks of ships traveling from their native southeast Asia.

"I think the most likely explanation is that they came from a farm owned by the Chinese in the Caribbean," Stokes said.

Tiger shrimp are farmed primarily in the Caribbean and South America, according to Stokes. They're among the most commonly farmed shrimp in the world. You may have even seen imported tiger shrimp on ice at your local market.

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