DNR reports 98 percent white shrimp loss following January's cold snap

"absolutely devastating news for this region"


Shrimp boats along the S.C. coast will likely pull in less white shrimp this year - SAM SPENCE FILE PHOTO
  • Sam Spence file photo
  • Shrimp boats along the S.C. coast will likely pull in less white shrimp this year
It could be a very lean year for white shrimp in Charleston. Due to January's freak snowstorm and 21 consecutive days of water temperatures at or below 48°F, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says they've seen a 98 percent loss in white shrimp.

"This was a pretty exceptional cold snap," says Mel Bell, DNR's Director of Office of Fisheries Management. "We know from past experiences, because it’s happened many times going back, whenever we have a cold winter and water drops below about 48 degrees, when you have that you start seeing mortality of the shrimp. What happened this year in particular was how fast it dropped."

The impact of the freeze could mean a delay in the commercial shrimp season which typically opens between May and June, although those dates have yet to be officially determined for 2018.

The way the white shrimp life cycle works is this time of year through spring, white shrimp are fattening up in order to be ready to spawn. As lowcountryestuarium.org explains, "white shrimp spawn offshore because their eggs and larval offspring require full ocean salinity of 35 parts per thousand (ppt)to survive.... And the roe shrimp harvest that follows the spawn can help make or break a commercial shrimper’s year."

That's where this year could be tricky. If there's no shrimp now, that's not gonna change come May. However, Bell has hoping we might get lucky.

"Hopefully enough shrimp were out off shore in deeper water that was a little warmer and managed to get through the winter and moved South and will come back in to spawn," he says. But it likely won't be an easy year for white shrimpers either way.

"If I made my living by being out there as soon as I could be out there and I was delayed a couple months, that hurts and that presents problem for the fishery in general. Shrimpers have boat payment and dock payments and it's not good if you've got no way to harvest," says Bell.

Some chefs are equally concerned. Jeffrey Stoneberger of 2Nixons, who initially alerted CP to the white shrimp situation, called the loss "absolutely devastating news for this region." Stoneberger would like to see the community come together to help out. "I think ‘the local shrimpers’ deserve our help. I think whenever possible everyone in this town comes together to help people in need. After hearing of multiple families who have had to sell their boats, I think multiple people should do an event to benefit these awesome people."

The only upside is that the SCDNR data shows that often when a weather event hurts white shrimp, it can be a plus for brown shrimp that prefer colder temperatures.

"They spawn in a different cycle in the fall timeframe," says Bell. "What we’ve noticed to be true, in years where white shrimp are down, brown shrimp sometimes are up. In terms of harvest ability that doesn’t kick in until late June or July, so sometimes we’ll delay the opening on white shrimp and in essence, the season will open on the brownies, but we’ll see how that goes."

That said, this isn't the first time a cold snap has hurt Charleston's harvest. Bell says his data shows similar results from 2001 and '89. But while, like years past, January's snowstorm could hurt the pocketbooks and the plates of local shrimp lovers this year, white shrimp are a resilient species that have made comebacks before.

As lowcountryestuarium.org says, "A female white shrimp may spawn several times and produce between 500,000 and 1,000,000 eggs. This accounts for the species’ ability to rebound rapidly from weather related die-offs."

Fingers crossed.

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