White shrimp are short-lived prawns with ranges that include the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern coast of the United States from Florida to New York. This species is the largest prawn in its range, reaching lengths of nearly 8 inches (20 cm), and is one of the more highly sought seafood species wherever it lives. It therefore supports a highly lucrative fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and in the southeast United States. Along with true crabs, lobsters, and other prawns, the white shrimp is a decapod; it has ten legs, and it is covered with a spiny exoskeleton that provides it some protection from potential predators.
White shrimp progress through several life history stages in a short amount of time, mature quickly, and typically live for less than a year. Adults live on soft bottoms from the near shore to depths of a few hundred feet. Unlike many aquatic invertebrates, white shrimp reproduce via internal fertilization. After mating, females release hundreds of thousands of fertilized eggs, which quickly hatch. Planktonic larvae live in the open ocean, and juveniles live in estuaries, before moving to the preferred adult habitat near the age of maturation. Like in all decapods, the white shrimp’s shell really is a skeleton on the outside of its body. The exoskeleton does not expand, and therefore the prawn must molt (shed) it regularly in order to grow bigger. Before molting, an individual begins building a new, larger skeleton inside the existing one. As it gets too big to be contained, it splits open the outer shell, and the new exoskeleton hardens. During this process, the new exoskeleton can be soft for several hours, and the prawn is highly vulnerable to predation.
Adult white shrimp are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of food, including algal and plant material, other invertebrates, and dead/decaying organic matter. Most soft-bottom fishes and several invertebrates eat juvenile and adult white shrimp. This species is also the target of a large fishery throughout most of its range. White shrimp populations are well managed, and this species is not considered overfished in the United States or in Mexico. Of more concern is the primary gear with which this species is captured. White shrimp (like other prawns around the world) are captured by bottom trawl. This method is known to cause significant damage to seafloor habitat and known to capture an incredible amount of non-target species. Numerous species of sea turtles, sharks, rays, bony fishes, and other invertebrates are accidentally captured in shrimp trawls. Species that have been clearly shown to be threatened by shrimp trawling include the northern red snapper , the loggerhead turtle, and other sea turtles. There is no doubt that other, less charismatic species are being threatened by this gear type as well. Without continuing advances in the gear used to capture white shrimp and other prawns, ecosystems in their geographic range will continue to directly or indirectly suffer. The use of prawn traps is an alternative gear type that is much more environmentally friendly. Traps do significantly less damage to the seafloor and are not associated with the high levels of incidental bycatch experienced with bottom trawls. Unfortunately, traps are much less lucrative for fishers and may not be a realistic alternative for those who make a living selling white shrimp.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.