Photo credit: North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve
Brown rock shrimp is the deep-water cousin of the common pink, white, and brown shrimp also found in the warm waters of the southeastern United States. It is the largest of six rock shrimp species found in this area. Rock shrimp are often called the “little shrimp with a big lobster taste.” They can easily be mistaken for a miniature lobster tail, and the texture of their meat also is similar to lobster. Most of the U.S. harvest comes from the east coast of Florida (mainly off the Cape Canaveral area).
Before the 1970s, rock shrimp were mainly captured incidentally by trawlers fishing for their cousins— the valuable pink, white, and brown shrimps—and were considered throwaway catch. Named for their rock-hard shell, rock shrimp were nearly impossible to peel and devein. In 1969, a machine was developed that could split the tough shell and devein the shrimp, helping to create a market for the species. The first major harvest of rock shrimp (1,200 pounds) was recorded in 1970 and valued at $642. In just 2 years, by 1972, landings totaled 443,035 pounds and were valued at more than $258,000. In the past decade, annual landings in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic have averaged nearly 3.5 million pounds, valued at an average of $4.2 million.
Rock shrimp have a short life span and, under favorable environmental conditions, can replenish their populations quickly. Although shrimp populations are fairly resilient to fishing pressure, the rock shrimp fishery can impact sensitive habitat as well as the abundance of other species, including finfish and sea turtles. Fishermen follow fishing gear requirements and other regulations to minimize the fishery’s impact on non-targeted species and bottom habitats.