The Canary of the Sea

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Shrimp in a Belmont Roll

Scientists have been warning us that global warming may severely threaten the survival of marine populations for several years now. But in a new study, published in Science this past Friday, they may have just found the ocean’s equivalent of the canary in the coal mine when it comes to fluctuating ocean temperatures. There’s just one little problem. This canary is worth $500 million.

Every time you stop in at your favorite sushi restaurant, odds are you’ve encountered the Northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis), a small, sweet variety favored in salads and other such Asian cuisine, which is native to the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf of Maine all the way to northern Iceland. These small crustaceans account for about 70% of commercial shrimp fishing worldwide and are worth $500 million each year.

The study’s researchers conclude that the shrimp occupy a very specific place in the ocean’s food chain. In each area they inhabit, they have evolved to mate at times that maximize their young’s access to phytoplankton blooms, their primary food supply. These young then act as a food source for larger fish such as cod. The researchers found that their mating is determined solely by the temperature of the ocean floor, but phytoplankton blooms depend on overall water temperature, sunlight, and several other factors. They conclude that the increase in ocean temperatures due to global warming could easily decouple the tenuous link between these two events, leading to a drastic decrease in shrimp populations. As the numbers of crustaceans shrink, the larger fish that use them as food would wane in turn.

The decline in shrimp would obviously indicate larger problems down the road. However, the shrimp fishery would suffer greatly for a warning that could easily be too little, too late for other commercial fisheries. And in the meantime, the economies of the countries that rely on this industry would take a severe blow.

Anne Richards, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) and one of the authors of the study, is currently working to determine if increasing water temperatures will create conditions that will precipitate this particular environmental disaster, but the data is not yet in. Hopefully, studies such as this will only reinforce the international desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions and promote climate conservation, and shrimp fisherman will never have to discover whether or not the Northern shrimp is resilient and adaptable enough to survive the slightly less chilly waters of the North Atlantic.

Photo Credit: VirtualErn at flickr

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