Savannah researchers study black gill parasite that is crippling - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Savannah researchers study black gill parasite that is crippling local shrimping industry

(Source: WTOC) (Source: WTOC)

The multi-million dollar a year shrimping industry is still trying to bounce back from one of the worst seasons in decades just four years ago.

Scientists, marine life experts and other stakeholders all embarked on a cruise Wednesday to gather data on one of the biggest reasons for the industry decline: Black Gill. 

WTOC's Sean Evans was part of Wednesday's journey. He had a firsthand look at what progress is being made to understand Black Gill aboard the Research Vessel Savannah.

It's peak season for Georgia's shrimpers, but, looking out over the water just beyond Wassaw Sound, you wouldn't necessarily know it. Only a couple boats trolled the waters on Wednesday. You'd normally seen more than a half dozen this time of year.

"The Black Gill will show up in about 75 percent, and then it's like you turn the water spigot off…there ain't a shrimp in the ocean," local shrimp fisherman Wynn Gale said to a group of researchers aboard the R/V Savannah. 

Black Gill is what's brought experts in marine science, fishery management and shrimping together aboard the Research Vessel Savannah for this year's annual Black Gill Stakeholder's Cruise.

The more that's known about this relatively mysterious parasite, the more predictable the effect on a yearly crop. It clings to shrimp's gills and feeds off the animal

"It would help the shrimpers in the industry a lot if we could say, this is going to be a good year, this is going to be a bad year," said University of Georgia researcher Marc Frischer with the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

Six hauls from off-shore, Wassaw Sound and the Wilmington River were analyzed carefully. Black Gill was found in shrimp in each load. 

"Seventeen out of thirty, so that's half.  That ain't good," Gale said as he analyzed a sample for Black Gill.

Gale has fished along Georgia's coast most of his life. He's seen a decline in the industry his family has relied on for income in recent years, and now fishes one year at a time without any guarantee he'll be doing the same thing next year.

"It's down, it's down," he said. "It's a combination of weather events, Black Gill and pricing." 

Gale explained more shrimp being imported from overseas is driving the price per pound down, which shrinks his profit margin and makes it harder to bankroll the costly trips out to sea.

"If this year was like last year, this probably would've been my last year shrimping," Gale said.

One goal of the cruise was to gather a couple hundred shrimp showing signs of Black Gill to study, as well as samples from the shrimps surroundings.

"As they say, the more research you do, the more questions get raised," Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Tina Walters said.

"We don't know it's life history, we don't know how it gets transmitted, we don't really know what other organisms…where it hides out when it goes away in the winter. And those are all critical for our understanding of how it's impacting the fishery," Frischer said.

"We try to get a handle on it, the best we can," Gale said. "And so far, it's been quite elusive."

Marine scientists know there's no eradicating Black Gill anytime soon, if ever. A greater understanding of the parasite is all they can work toward for now, and local shrimpers will continue to adjust to the ebb and flow of Black Gill's effects on their profits.

Marine scientists say Black Gill is not harmful to people.

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