Shrimping season will open in the Gulf of Mexico after sunset Tuesday.
But don’t count your shrimp before they spawn.
Recent samplings by biologists at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the National Marine Fisheries indicate a diminished population of mature shrimp is now migrating into the Gulf, and like the previous year, they are smaller than past catches.
The bay has been closed since mid-May to allow young brown shrimp to move from the bays to offshore waters where they grow larger and mature.
The lackluster forecast predicts the overall combined catch from Texas and Louisiana will drop 3 million to 4 million pounds from the previous year’s haul of 56.5 million pounds.
Environmental factors such as cooler weather this spring, and the ongoing Texas drought are the likely culprits for the downturn.
“We had several cold fronts in the late winter and spring which kept water temperatures cooler than normal,” said Lance Robinson, regional director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Coastal Fisheries Division.
Record low water temperatures in Galveston Bay, the result of several weather fronts, were not conducive for optimal shrimp growth which occurs in waters greater than 68 degrees.
“Shrimp are coldblooded, and when we have cooler temperatures, their metabolism slows down and their growth is delayed,” he said.
Also, the habitat in Galveston Bay estuaries in which juvenile shrimp feed and grow is less favorable now because of ongoing drought conditions in other parts of the state, resulting in fewer river waters feeding the estuaries.
“When we have sufficient rain or when the Trinity and San Jacinto rivers are feeding the estuary, it creates zones of optimal salinity in areas where we have a perfect habitat for the young shrimp,” Robinson said.
“But without the influx of fresh water, and the food provided within the water, the bay becomes too salty and the area is less optimal for the young shrimp to feed and grow.”
This is not happy news for the shrimpers who are preparing boats and repairing nets for the season’s launch Tuesday and it’s a blow to seafood suppliers such as Hillman’s Seafood Market in Dickinson.
“Mother Nature is playing some tricks on us,” said Mary Smith, president of Hillman’s.
“Shrimping has always been unpredictable, but we truly have no clue what this opening is going to bring,” she said. “We’ve heard, of course, that the catch is going to be down.”
For the consumer, it means prices will likely rise, Smith said.
“The prices may not rise immediately as the first catches of the season are likely to be ample but as the year moves along and availability drops, prices will increase.”
Smith said their business has already been looking for other sources of shrimp.
“It’s the whole Gulf Coast, not just our bay,” she said. “It is not producing the numbers of shrimp that it normally does.”
And it’s not just the coast or the bay but the health of the entire watershed that is suffering. When Wichita Falls experiences a historic yearslong drought, the marine life in Galveston Bay also feels the pain.
Shrimping in Galveston Bay and in the Gulf is a complex system monitored by state and federal biologists to support the best conditions possible to grow the largest number of marketable shrimp.
When they determine the actual opening date, biologists consider the moon phase, the tides and a variety of other factors, all aimed at having more and bigger shrimp.
“The reason there is no shrimping in the Gulf from mid-May to mid-July is to allow the young adult brown shrimp to migrate from the estuaries into the Gulf where they mature, grow to a more valuable size and spawn,” Robinson he said.
The National Marine Fisheries, which controls fishing in the Gulf waters from nine to 200 nautical miles offshore, purposely mirrors the Texas shrimping rules. Opening and closing days are the same.
There are three distinct species of shrimp — brown, white and pink — and they live about one year.
An ancient shrimp might be 16 months old, Robinson said.
The shrimp life cycle begins when they are spawned in the Gulf, and the larvae move from the open waters into the estuaries of Galveston Bay. Here they feed on the rich plankton and other food deposited by the river waters. In May, having grown to young adults, they migrate back into the open waters of the Gulf, where they grow larger.
“Shrimp are considered an annual crop,” said Elizabeth Scott-Denton, a fishery biologist based in Galveston with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as NOAA.
“Brown shrimp are caught most frequently off of Texas from May through August. White shrimp off the Louisiana coast from August through November, and (the) highest pink shrimp catch occurs off the south Florida Gulf Coast in the winter.”
Shrimp may be little but their annual economic impact is jumbo-size, she said.
“According to fishery statistics for the United States in 2012, landings of shrimp totaled 302.596 million pounds valued at nearly $490.067 million” Scott-Denton said.
“Gulf region landings were the nation’s largest with 208.2 million pounds and 70 percent of the national total. Louisiana led all Gulf states with 101.0 million pounds followed by Texas, 69.0 million pounds.”
This figure reflects shrimping in the upper and lower Texas coast encompassing Galveston Bay, Palacios and the Corpus Christi-Brownsville area.
A massive oil spill off the Texas Coast in March is the elephant in the closet when biologists speak about the expected shrimp catch this year.
“We have no current evidence that the oil spill is a contributing factor in the below average brown shrimp forecast for this year,” Scott-Denton said.
“The predication is based solely on shrimp abundance data. If all the environmental factors for shrimp production had been optimal, we might have looked for other factors contributing to lower productions, but the environmental factors were not optimal this year,” she said.
If below-average trends persist under better conditions, then other causes would need to be investigated, she said.
There are about 1,500 federal permits for fishing in federal waters. The numbers of shrimpers is declining because of a combination of factors that include fuel prices, pressures of imported shrimp and hurricanes.
Still, according to the shrimp alliance, the U.S. market for shrimp has been steadily improving since 2010.
“We contract with eight shrimpers who have all been in the business for 35 years or more,” Mary Smith of Hillman’s Seafood said. “This is what they know and what they love to do. They are going to hang on as long as they can. They are going to stick it out.”