Science for a Changing Fishery

Jun 23, 2023

Reserve-based science is informing sustainable management of the Southeast shrimp industry. 

Many people in the Southeast depend on the shrimp industry for their livelihoods. However, the annual catch for white and brown shrimp—which together bring in more than $400 million annually—has been fluctuating for 30 years. What’s driving these changes? Reserves in ACE Basin, North Inlet-Winyah Bay, and Sapelo Island have teamed up to explore that question and enhance the sustainability of the fishery and the communities that depend on it. 

With support from the NERRS Science Collaborative, the team is collaborating with fishery management agencies and extension offices to study how changing environmental conditions impact the life cycle and population size of white and brown shrimp.

“The iterative work among fishery managers, fishing industry stakeholders, researchers, and educators is forging new collaborative efforts across the Southeast and providing critical information to support the management of this important fishery,” says Maeve Synder, collaborative project lead and coastal training program coordinator at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve.

To investigate changes in shrimp abundance and size in Lowcountry estuaries, the team is analyzing more than 40 years of data collected by the South Carolina and Georgia departments of Natural Resources and the Reserve System’s System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP). This analysis is grounded by lab studies and field sampling at the Reserves, which help characterize shrimp habitats and how environmental factors, such as warmer winters and different salinity levels, affect them.

“Our ongoing time series analyses, field sampling, and experiments are generating really interesting data about the responses of shrimp to estuarine conditions,” says Robert Dunn, project lead and research coordinator at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve. “We’re beginning to see that the two main shrimp species, brown and white shrimp, may show different responses to changing temperatures and salinities and that there may be potential tradeoffs between abundance and individual animal size.”

The team also conducted interviews to better understand fishers’ perceptions of environmental impacts on the shrimp industry.

“Shrimpers have spent multiple decades fishing our waters, and their observations and local knowledge can serve as a critical data source that we would not have access to otherwise,” says Bryan Fluech with Georgia Sea Grant. “We will be able to see where their observations align with or differ from the data our researchers collect, which will give, potentially, a richer, more comprehensive assessment of how changing environmental conditions are impacting our shrimp populations.” 

Fleuch and Jocelyn Juliano with the South Carolina Sea Grant both noted a common theme from interviews with shrimp industry stakeholders is that winters are getting warmer and longer, which gives them a longer season and expands populations northward.

“It’s critical to communicate with the fishing industry how changing environmental conditions could impact shrimp populations,” says Snyder.

The project has also allowed the next generation of scientists to get their feet wet and support the shrimp industry

“I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to participate in this research, because it may directly affect policy and management for the penaeid shrimp fishery,” says Willa Lane, a NOAA Hollings Scholar focusing on shrimp at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve. “This research will have a real impact and it was also a fantastic learning experience that helped me better understand how science works in an applied setting.”

“Penaeid shrimp are both ecologically and economically important,” says Drew Bruck, 2022–23 Rogers Fellow in Environmental Studies and project team member. “Because they are commercially harvested, we are gaining both an understanding of their role in estuarine ecosystems and helping to ensure they are sustainably harvested moving forward.”

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ReservesACE Basin, South CarolinaScience for a Changing Fishery