ATLANTA -- It's a monster shrimp that can grow to nearly a foot long. It's invading the coastal waters from North Carolina to Texas. Georgia waters are smack in the middle of the invasion and scientists are worried.
Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released new numbers on the exotic species.
"We can confirm there was nearly a tenfold jump in reports of Asian tiger shrimp in 2011," explained Pam Fuller, a USGS biologist. "And they are probably even more prevalent than reports suggest, because the more fisherman and other locals become accustomed to seeing them, the less likely they are to report them."
Fuller's team at USGS has been tracking Asian tiger shrimp since the first reports in 1998, when nearly 300 of them were collected off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida within three months. Scientists tracked the cause back to an isolated incident that accidentally caused an estimated 2,000 animals to be released from an aquaculture facility operating at that time in South Carolina.
Eighteen years later, they were back in bigger numbers. Specimens were first found in North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, Louisiana's Vermilion Bay and other parts of Florida and the Carolinas. The species was later reported off the coasts of Georgia in 2008.
Because of the heightened numbers, NOAA scientists are launching a research effort to understand more about the shrimp and how they may affect the ecology of native fisheries and coastal ecosystems. The Asian tiger shrimp grows faster and larger than native species, and scientists are concerned how the growing numbers might affect native species.
Scientists have found few juvenile species, so they're unsure if the exotic brand of shrimp are breeding in local waters or if they're just being carried in by currents and boats.
"We're going to start by searching for subtle differences in the DNA of Asian tiger shrimp found here - outside their native range - to see if we can learn more about how they got here," said USGS geneticist Margaret Hunter, "If we find differences, the next step will be to fine tune the analysis to determine whether they are breeding here, have multiple populations, or are carried in from outside areas."
As you head to your summer fishing spots, the scientists have a request: if you catch a Tiger shrimp, report it. You should note the location and enter it into the database at http://nas.er.usgs.gov/SightingReport.aspx. If possible, freeze a specimen to help confirm the identity and contribute to the DNA database.