For decades, scientists have been looking into whether the condition of the Gulf’s pink shrimp can show us how Everglades’ restoration is doing. However, funding for this type of research was cut a few years ago.
Now, at least one restoration task force wants data scientists don’t have. Anecdotally, bait shrimpers aren’t doing too well and Gulf shrimpers have said their catch isn’t what it used to be.
Dr. Joan Browder, a National Marine Fisheries Service fishery ecologist, started studying the effects of salinity and fresh water flow into the estuaries and Florida Bay on pink shrimp growth and survival in 1984, but her research funding was cut in 2011. So, she’s not able to tell shrimpers if issues in the nursery habitat are related to declines in their catch.
"Could declines in the nursery grounds in Florida Bay be responsible for some of the declines we’ve seen in pink shrimp in the past years?” asked Dr. Browder. “Perhaps, because I think that the Tortugas fishery is very dependent on Florida Bay and that nursery ground.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports in 2006, more than 5 million pounds of pink shrimp, worth $11 million were off-loaded on San Carlos Island, across the bay from Fort Myers Beach. In 2013, only 2.3 million pounds of pink shrimp worth almost half that much were off-loaded there.
Dr. Browder said pink shrimp is an annual crop and as it’s managed it’s not threatened with extinction, but she said it could be doing better.
“It’s a very sustainable fishery. And it was for many years the highest valued fishery in Florida and may be again,” said Dr. Browder.
Shrimper Malcolm Curran came in to port after 23 days on the vessel the “Polly Theresa”. He said the fleet isn’t what it used to be.
“I think it’s dwindled down from thousands of shrimp boats to hundreds in the entire Gulf of Mexico,” said Curran.
Fellow shrimper and owner of the “Lexi Joe”, Henry Gore, said the price of pink shrimp has gone up lately but the supply close to southwest Florida has gone down and he doesn’t know why.
“There’s shrimp off Sanibel,” said Gore. “Not as good as it used to be but you get on a little bit south of Sanibel and for sixty miles it’s just like it’s dead. I don’t know what that is. Something happened over the last ten years. We used to catch a lot of shrimp there off Naples and all that. Nothin’ anymore.”
So, Gore said he has to travel much farther south to the Dry Tortugas to make the trip worth his while. He said he faces competition from imported shrimp and 20 days of fishing costs him $18,000 in diesel fuel alone.
It’s a similar story for bait fisherman Ralph Woodring who runs the Bait Box on Sanibel.
“It’s got to be worthwhile to go, pay for the gas and be enough shrimp to take care of the business for the next day at least and that’s not the case,” said Woodring, who’s been trawling for shrimp and other bait fish in San Carlos Bay since the 1970’s. He said lately his catch is not even one tenth what it used to be. He said it breaks his heart.
“It makes you want to cry and I have been known to on occasion talking to the water management district some years ago and the tears just flowed. It hurts,” said Woodring.
Not far from where Woodring trawls at night, Rick Bartleson, a research scientist for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, checks a water sample for, among other things, salinity.
He said this year has been pretty good, fresher than normal for dry season. Bartleson is studying how sea grass beds are affected by freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, runoff from the Caloosahatchee and rainfall.
“When we have those high flows, salinities go way down, so that would account for no shrimp around our area during those discharges,” said Bartleson. “But the other thing those flows do is effect the sea grasses. When sea grasses go away the shrimp don’t have anywhere to hide at night when they’re feeding.”
This is why federal fishery ecologist Dr. Joan Browder wishes she still had the funding to study pink shrimp in the estuaries.
“It’s really important that these nursery grounds are good habitat for them with good healthy sea grasses and the right salinities at the right time and the right variability so they’re not stressed out and so they can grow at their maximum rates and so a lot of them survive,” said Dr. Browder.
Most of the funding for Browder’s pink shrimp studies, whose data were used to help monitor everglades restoration, was part of a 68 percent cut in monitoring projects in 2011. Dr. Susan Gray, chief environmental scientist at the South Florida Water Management District, said they had to scale back.
“While pink shrimp are important economically and for the ecosystem they tend to be out in a band that is more saline and so not as necessarily as sensitive to changes in near-shore freshwater flows as other species,” said Dr. Gray. “And for that reason and because we were essentially having to make some very difficult decisions the idea was to cut that monitoring at the time and with the idea that as economic conditions improve we’re hoping that we can go back and pick up some of these indicators.”
Water managers still monitor oysters. And even though oysters are more tolerant of fresh water flows than shrimp, heavy lake releases last year caused dangerously low salinity levels. As a result, all the oysters in the Caloosahatchee River being used as indicator species for everglades restoration died.
Dr. Gray said water managers expect to revisit the monitoring program next fiscal year. After all, without a solid plan, Florida’s formerly highest valued fishery may not regain its status or continue to be in demand with consumers like Denise Luna. She drove nearly an hour each month to what was the last market left on San Carlos Island for fresh wild caught pink Gulf shrimp.
“[It’s] fresh, very fresh,” said Luna. “Delicious.”
The product can also be found at select area restaurants like The Local in Naples.
“I look for fresh shrimp, never frozen,” said head chef Richard Demarse. “I want it to come from as close to here as possible.”
Demarse said the year-old restaurant’s theme is buying as much of its product locally as possible.
WGCU's multi-platform project Pink Gold Rush continues here.