Warm temperatures move more shrimp to Chesapeake Bay waters
By Whitney Pipkin
Bay Journal News Service
Large white shrimp – the kind that might feature in scampi in white wine – have been navigating the warmer waters of Chesapeake Bay in increasing numbers. Their increased presence could be the region’s first culinary boon of climate change (despite the invasive blue catfish).
Although this larger species of shrimp, commonly referred to as white shrimp or Gulf white shrimp, has always been in the area, the waters off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay were until recently not warm enough to accommodate large numbers, according to the National Oceanic and Fisheries Department of the Atmospheric Administration. Warmer ocean temperatures over the past decade have pushed the species most often associated with North Carolina fisheries further north. These numbers are now large enough to support an emerging commercial fishery off the coast of Virginia.
In 2017, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission issued its first experimental permits to anglers interested in trying their hand at shrimp fishing in the coastal waters of the states near Virginia Beach. The agency has issued a handful of additional permits each of the past few years and is also testing the waters with a few experimental permits for fishermen plying ocean waters near the east coast.
“I saw them when I was a kid, but it seems there are more and more of them,” said Bob Crisher who, along with his business partner Dave Portlock, was the first to get an experimental license to fish. shrimp in Virginia waters. Since then, the couple have spent their winters bringing them back.
This year, Crisher is one of a dozen fishermen hauling cargoes of shrimp – which they call “green tails” – to be sold fresh off their boats at the docks in Virginia Beach from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31. Although restrictions on trawling do not ‘prohibit such a commercial harvest within the bay, shrimp probably spend much of their life in the waters of Chesapeake before heading out to the ocean at the end of the l fall and early winter.
The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has tracked the increased occurrence of penaeid shrimp (a category that includes white, brown, and pink shrimp) in the Chesapeake through surveys since 1991. White shrimp are by far the most abundant in the bay. And, as of 2016, trawl surveys began to report “orders of magnitude” more shrimp – from about 41 shrimp in 1991 to 5,809 shrimp in 2016, according to a 2021 article on the subject. Large numbers of shrimp were collected not only near the mouth of the bay, but also from the James, York and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia.
“When you see changes like this, it indicates climate change,” VIMS senior researcher Troy Tuckey said of the number of shrimp. Warmer waters have meant in the past “we have manatees and things like that, junk.” But it is the first which settles and which presents advantages in terms of food and employment.
The Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have also trawled the Lafayette and Elizabeth Rivers near the mouth of the bay at least twice a year for about a decade to identify species.
“We started picking up shrimp on a fairly regular basis about five or six years ago, more and more of these larger shrimp,” said Joe Rieger, assistant manager of catering for the Elizabeth River project. “Every year there have been a lot more. “
Last year, Rieger said a 7-minute trawl in Wayne Creek, a tributary of the Lafayette River, returned about 50 shrimp. The landscape surrounding this cove is a strip of densely populated Norfolk suburb, so Rieger was surprised to attract “shrimp this huge and gigantic”.
White shrimps (Penaeus setiferus) are considerably larger than the small, almost transparent common pink prawns that have long been found in the Chesapeake and are easily distinguished from them.
Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystems scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said educators organizing boat trips for the foundation have also reported seeing the largest shrimp well in the bay and its rivers, including the Lynnhaven, the Nansemond and the James, and as far north as the Rappahannock. Near the mouth of the bay, shrimp surveying becomes a mainstay of CBF educational boat trips.
Residents of the Elizabeth and Lafayette Rivers who are on hand with a dip net (and permitted to use it) may be able to remove it directly from their docks in the fall before migrating to the ocean. Sterling Rollings, who recently installed a living shoreline on their Elizabeth River property in Portsmouth, said they were shooting a few dozen giant shrimp every night for a few weeks in October.
“We had them 15 minutes from the water to the steamboat,” said Rollings, who freezes most of the shrimp for later. “With butter and garlic it was pretty good.”
A permit is required for the recreational use of a hawk to bring back shrimp. The VMRC first approved a recreational limit for shrimp caught in the bay in August: a daily limit of 20 liters of shrimp with the head or 15 liters of shrimp with the head off. Despite this, the Virginia Department of Health advises against eating more than two meals per month of many species of fish caught in the Elizabeth River and its branches due to the potential buildup of toxic substances in their tissues.
Unlike the freshwater rivers that flow into the Chesapeake from further inland, the Elizabeth River and its tributaries are so close to the ocean that they have high salinity levels and therefore many species of water. ‘salt water. But the not-so-distant past of the river makes it still hard to believe that people can fish for shrimp for supper from their shores.
In 1983, the United States Environmental Protection Agency designated the Elizabeth River as one of the most polluted water bodies in the Bay Watershed, and the river is still on the list of degraded waters of the agency. Home to one of the busiest military and commercial ports in the world, the Elizabeth River has undergone 400 years of infilling, deepening and paving to accommodate industry and growth in the towns of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach – to say nothing of chemical pollution from industry, military installations and shipyards.
But, according to regular reports from the Elizabeth River Project, the river is now also one of the most improved in the bay. Expensive cleanups over the years have removed the toxins inherited from the river bottom.
The impacts of rising sea levels and increasingly common flooding in the region are also leading more residents to consider their impact on water quality. An estimated 6,000 residents are enrolled in the Elizabeth River Project’s River Star Homes program, which encourages them to install living shores, rain barrels and rain gardens, and to reduce the use of fertilizers, among other measures. for the benefit of the river.
The most recent Elizabeth River School Report C rating “is nothing but remarkable,” the report says, “if you realize that when the first group of scientists got together … to examine the health of the river in 1994 , the teachers fought over the fishiest slides. “
Some tributaries of the Elizabeth River are doing better than others. The Lafayette River was removed from the list of waterways contaminated with Virginia bacteria in 2016, opening it up to recreational use. In 2018, the Lafayette was considered the first river in the state to meet its goal of restoring oysters, with nonprofits and hundreds of thousands of dollars helping to protect and create a total of 80 acres. of oyster reefs.
The reefs, Rieger said at the time, would create more habitat for fish and other species. This list now includes shrimp.
White shrimp are born on the continental shelf of the ocean before migrating to estuaries to feed and grow throughout spring and summer. With the help of wind and rains, shrimp return to ocean waters in late fall and early winter months.
Many aquatic animals feed on shrimp, especially turtles and finfish, for example the red drum.
“I hope that one of the advantages of [more shrimp] in the Chesapeake Bay it’s because we have more forage species, ”said Moore. “There are long-standing concerns about other species like the menhaden in the bay. I hope this can serve as another option.
One of the reasons the VMRC has proceeded with caution in opening a shrimp fishery is to avoid depleting its supply before scientists fully understand the dynamics of local populations. This could help the region avoid some of the pitfalls associated with “derby style” fisheries which end up being closed as quickly as they have opened due to overfishing, Moore said.
“People are very excited about another fishery for the Commonwealth, and it is a very valuable fishery for our sailors,” he said. Slowly developing a new shrimp fishery, Moore said, “I think the VMRC is trying to make sure that we avoid some of the issues that plague other states when it comes to trawling in their estuarine waters.”
To reduce bycatch, fishermen like Bob Crisher use “beam trawls” with fish grates to net shrimp near the seabed. Virginia’s permit allows them to use such equipment in the 3-mile strip of waters off the state’s coast.
The shrimp they bring back are 4 to 8 inches long, including the head, but not the antennae, which are often longer than the shrimp itself. They sell for $ 5 a pound. In comparison to what can be found frozen at the grocery store, Crisher said, large shrimp weigh about 15 per pound and averages between 21 and 26 per pound.
Crisher and Portlock use social media to let customers know when they bring shrimp to the docks near Winston Salem Avenue in Virginia Beach’s Rudee Inlet. Signs are also posted there.
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States. But nearly 90% of what is eaten here is imported, and, according to advocacy group Oceana, much of it is grown in a way that is considered harmful to the environment.
Prior to the shrimp fishery, Crisher generally supported his business by selling dogfish at around 19 cents a pound during the winter months. “But shrimp pay a lot better when you can catch them,” he said. And “the customers love them”.
Whitney Pipkin is a Bay Journal editor based in Virginia. She can be reached at [email protected] This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.