/ Modified feb 4, 2014 8:51 a.m.

Disease Drives Shrimp Prices; UA Researcher Seeks Solution

Syndrome kills species when young, causing entire crops to be lost; scientist finds way to detect it early on.


Wholesale shrimp prices have been on the rise for four years, and a big reason is the increasing presence of a shrimp disease that has made its way to Arizona.

In December 2009, wholesale shrimp cost just under $7.94 pound. Fast forward to know, the price has more than doubled to $17.09 per pound.

The disease, known as mortality syndrome, is hitting farms in Asia, causing entire crops of shrimp to be lost. It stops digestion in shrimp, causing them to die before they grow big enough to harvest for consumption.

Early mortality syndrome often kills the young shrimp shortly after they are added to the farming ponds, and this could potentially wipe out an entire population of them.

“The disease causes mortality of about 80 to 90 percent immediately following stocking,” said Don Lightner a professor in the UA's School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences.

The effect is being felt worldwide, including here in Arizona.

This price raise in shrimp can be painful for local seafood restaurants, because the crustacean is a high demand food.

“Shrimp you can always sell; people will always buy shrimp," said Jim Murphy, owner of Kingfisher Bar and Grill and Bluefin Seafood Bistro. "We do a lot of catering, and people always say, 'Just bring us any shrimp.'"

While Murphy does not use Asian farmed shrimp in his business, he still feels the impact of early mortality syndrome.

“It’s affected the market," he said. "We don’t normally use the black tiger or the farmed shrimp unless its Mexican farmed shrimp, but the loss of all of those to the market has aided in the rise in pricing.”

As supplies of shrimp dwindle, it puts higher demand on all shrimp, including Murphy’s favorite, wild-caught, Mexican brown shrimp.

And with a price increase as steep as shrimp, he has little choice but to pass a little of it to his customers.

“We do a grilled and chilled shrimp here and it’s a mainstay on our menu," he said. "People notice when it’s different and they notice when the price goes up.”

While people in Tucson can feel the financial impact of a shrimp disease in Asia, they can also do something about it.

Lightner, along with assistant research specialist Linda Nunan, are helping shrimp farmers diagnose the disease.

He has been studying it for some time, and has developed a test for the disease that is quick and inexpensive. Such test magnifies shrimp DNA, so it can be more easily examined for traces of the disease. These tests are the norm for identifying shrimp diseases.

“The shrimp industry for the past 15 years has relied more and more (on this test)," Lightner said. "The predominant reason is it’s quick. Test results (arrive) within 24 hours.”

One of Lightner’s biggest issues in developing the test was something that should be rather simple - getting his hands on the bacteria so he could build a test for it.

“The first samples we got came out of China. Incidentally, they came out in dirty laundry," he said. "Because China has a policy that no samples are ever to be taken out of the country.”

The tests Lightner developed are nearly ready for use, meaning it will soon be easier to diagnose early mortality syndrome. But even with a quick and inexpensive test, eradicating the disease may be difficult, because the best line of treatment is not a pleasant alternative.

“The shrimp industry has two options," Nunan said. "The best option is generally if you detect it you destroy your stock.”

So while a test is key, it will be difficult to convince farmers that the best option is to lose an entire crop of shrimp. But, this may be the only option to prevent the spread of early mortality syndrome and bring shrimp prices back down.

Stopping the disease could have an impact on a large industry.

“Vietnam, China, Thailand are all major shrimp producers, and the United States until very recently would import a lot of shrimp from those countries," Lightner said. "...All from shrimp farms. We would import, maybe up to about $6 billion worth a year."

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