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The giant prawn menace

Yet another thing to add to your list of Things You Didn’t Realize You Needed To Worry About: Giant prawns in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Asian tiger prawn, a foot-long crustacean with a voracious appetite and a proclivity for disease, has invaded the northern Gulf, threatening prized native species, from crabs and oysters to smaller brown and white shrimp.

Though no one is sure what the ecological impact will be, scientists fear a tiger prawn takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species.

“It has the potential to be real ugly,” said Leslie Hartman, Matagorda Bay ecoystem leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “But we just do not know.”

The tiger prawns from the western Pacific – which can grow up to 13 inches long – have been spreading along the Gulf Coast since 2006, but their numbers took off this year. Shrimpers pulled one from Texas waters for the first time in June.

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Some speculate that the Gulf invasion began with an accidental release of farmed prawns in South Carolina in 1988. Another theory: The prawns may have escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.

The threat underscores concerns about large-scale fish farming, also known as aquaculture, in the Gulf. The federal government opened the waters to fish farms in 2009 despite fears from environmental and fishing interests over how to protect wild stocks.

They’re going to do some genetic testing to try to determine where these things came from. What to do about them if they’ve gained a foothold in the ecosystem is less clear. These shrimp do make good eating, and could be another cash crop for shrimpers, but it would be at the expense of existing stock, which isn’t a good trade. Let’s hope something can be done before it gets out of control.

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