Environmentalists are worried as more and more Asian Tiger Prawns, or Penaeus monodon, are showing up in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast coast of the United States. The non-indigenous species, identifiable by its black-and-white or red-and-white striped tail and back, can grow to be more than a foot long, posing serious competition for its smaller, native shrimp cousins.
A species with a voracious appetite, the Tiger Prawn preys on many of the same foods as native shrimp species, but also prey on smaller prawns and sometimes crabs and young oysters. They are also a known carrier of at least 16 viruses that could spread to local white and brown shrimp, oysters, and crabs in the Gulf. The list of viruses includes white spot, which can be lethal to other shrimp.
Although it remains unclear exactly where these massive prawns are coming from, The Houston Chronicle reports that some speculate that the spread is a result of an accidental release of farmed prawns in 1988 in South Carolina. Others theorize that the prawns escaped from flooded industrial shrimp ponds in the Caribbean Sea during recent hurricanes.
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Many biologists are worried about the jumbo shrimp’s impact on the future of the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. However, the threat it poses to local seafood populations is still not entirely understood. "There’s a certain unknown about what ecological impacts that something nonindigenous like this can have on the local environment," said Marty Bourgeois, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Houma Today.
Though the outcome may be unknown, one thing’s for sure: the population is definitely growing. In 2006, for example, there were only five Tiger Prawns found total. All five were discovered off the coast of North Carolina. However, in 2011, the Florida Times Union reported that there were 257 prawns found in North Carolina, 125 in Louisiana, and 23 off Florida’s coasts.
It is important to note, however, that the prawn has, according to Bourgeois, a "sweet flavor," which suggests that perhaps eating them is the best way to fix the problem before it gets too out of hand. So get out your forks and knives, we’ve got an ecosystem to save.