Lionfish, tiger shrimp found in Gulf of Mexico; scientists fear invasive species

By Advocate staff reports
Dec. 12, 2011 at 6:12 a.m.
Updated Dec. 13, 2011 at 6:13 a.m.

Lionfish have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish are not indigenous to these waters and may pose a risk to native species.

Lionfish have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish are not indigenous to these waters and may pose a risk to native species.

Lionfish and black tiger shrimp are spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, and the presence of this nonindigenous sea life has scientists concerned.

Lionfish and black tiger shrimp are only two of more than 40 species of nonindigenous sea life known to be growing in numbers throughout the Gulf of Mexico from their native waters, but they are seen by many resource experts as the most threatening, Jim Hiney, the communications coordinator for Texas Sea Grant, said.

Lionfish have been a growing problem in the South Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea for most of a decade, but black tiger shrimp are a relatively new phenomenon. A few were captured in the Gulf of Mexico each year beginning in 2006, but the numbers rose significantly in 2011, according to a news release from the Texas Seas Grant.

During this year, more than 60 of the shrimp were brought by shrimp boats to one dock alone in Louisiana and the first captures off Texas' coast were reported to the federal government. Three black tiger shrimp were caught in Aransas Bay, one was caught in Sabine Lake and one was caught in federal waters about 70 miles offshore from Freeport, according to the news release.

Lionfish are strikingly colored, brightly striped and venomous fish that can quickly populate an area and decrease native populations through either eating them or chasing them away.

Black tigers are the largest species of shrimp in the world.

Female shrimp are slightly larger than males and can grow to an average of about a foot in length and weigh close to three-fourths of a pound. Black tiger shrimp eat the same types of food as native shrimp species, but as they grow they also eat their smaller cousins.

The Texas Sea Grant College Program's Tony Reisinger spoke to Port Isabel Shrimp Producers Association in early December about the growing number of black tiger captures in the Gulf of Mexico - perhaps as many as 1,000 this year including five that represent the first ever caught off the Texas coast.

Association members, who represent a fleet of 135 vessels that fish off Louisiana, Florida and Texas, were "extremely concerned to the point where they want to find out what the federal government will do about the black tiger shrimp," said Reisinger, Cameron County Coastal and Marine Resources agent, in the release. "They are concerned about whether it will affect their livelihood."

Thus far, black tiger shrimp have left experts scratching their heads. No one seems to know where the shrimp came from, or what affect they will have on the three species of shrimp native to the Gulf of Mexico and, by extension, the $700 million shrimp fishing industry.

The shrimp may have come from aquaculture efforts in the Caribbean or South America, or they have found their way into Gulf waters through other means, Hiney said.

Unlike the lionfish, black tiger shrimp are actually profitable because of their size, Hiney said. However, there are drawbacks because it is still unclear what effect they will have on the native species in the Gulf.

"We just don't know what the long-term impacts are going to be," Gary Graham, Texas Sea Grant's Fisheries Specialist, said in the release. "I don't know whether these shrimp will establish themselves in the Gulf of Mexico or play themselves out, but I think they could become a more serious problem than anyone originally thought."

Hiney noted that recreational swimmers aren't likely to spot the fish but recreational divers might. He also encouraged any shrimpers or anglers who catch either of the species to submit a sample, so they can genetically track where the sea life came from.

"We want people to be aware that this is happening, and we want people to report any sightings," Hiney said.



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