With the threat of wild shrimp stocks being depleted in the Gulf of Mexico and a practically nonexistent live-bait-shrimp industry in South Carolina, the Waddell Mariculture Center is developing technology to supply live local bait year-round.
While local shrimp for bait is available between May and December, much of what is sold in the state comes from Florida, where bait shrimp is raised in large hatcheries.
The three-year project to raise a
disease-free line of native white shrimp for recreational fishermen is being funded with a federal grant. Al Stokes, manager of the Bluffton Waddell Center and a wildlife biologist for the state
Department of Natural Resources, said he hopes Waddell can pass the project on to the private sector when the grant expires in December.
"The reason we are doing this is ... the continued harvesting of bait shrimp in the ocean has been considered environmentally unsustainable," Stokes said. "We're trying to develop the technology where we'll be able to start a bait industry to supply live bait shrimp
In May of last year, the center captured wild shrimp and kept the healthiest. It then tested 58 female shrimp for viruses. Results showed all were healthy.
The center artificially inseminated the female shrimp, which then produced 20,000 offspring. The center stocked them in a production pond, and they grew to about 25 grams each -- about 18 to a pound.
Waddell gave thousands of shrimp away to hatcheries in Florida that can carry the line and make some of the bait available for future studies. Waddell kept 500 of those shrimp, which it's using to produce bait locally.
By regulating light and temperature to simulate spring, biologists can trick shrimp into spawning. They also remove one eye from the female shrimp, which speeds up the maturation process.
The shrimp are now separated by sex into two 1-ton tanks where the water is recycled and sterilized to keep out pathogens. In April, the center will combine them into smaller tanks to breed.
Stokes hopes the project will lead to the creation of a local bait industry, where recreational fishermen spend significant amounts of money to buy bait.
Mills Rooks is starting a shrimp production complex in Ridgeland this summer. He plans to use technology the Waddell center developed, as well as its disease-free line of native shrimp.
"I'm not aware in South Carolina of anybody that raises bait shrimp," Rooks said. "We think it will be a fairly decent market."
But commercial fishermen aren't too keen on the idea.
Clay Cable, vice president of the S.C. Shrimpers Association, said farm-raised shrimp is destroying the commercial shrimping industry. He suggests the state allow commercial shrimpers to catch bait shrimp after the shrimping season ends in January. He also thinks prohibiting out-of-state shrimp imports would reduce the potential for viruses.
"A bait program could be developed here, but (the state) would need to encourage that," Cable said. "Instead of going into pond-raising, I suggest they authorize shrimpers (to catch bait shrimp) who have been run out of business by some of their activity."