Shrimp-killing disease highlights dangers of warming oceans

Rendall Genge of Anchor Point says shrimp fishermen can't afford to fish on the Northern Peninsula because of a price dispute. (CBC)

For the past four year, there's been a deadly disease spreading through shrimp populations in southeast Asia, and while this is only impacting on people's wallets at the moment, the conditions of this disease's development and spread are linked to warm ocean waters and this may indicate just how much trouble we're in due to climate change.

The disease in question is called Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), which surfaced in 2009 in China, and it was only last month that scientists were finally able to isolate what bacteria was causing it — Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

The strains of Vibrio parahaemolyticus that are killing the shrimp aren't harmful to humans, or any other type of animal life (that we know of, at the moment).

However, all strains of V. parahaemolyticus depend on the same conditions for growth — warm, salty water, and the warmer the better. Eating seafood that's infected with the strains that do harm us causes gastroenteritis, which people experience as vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. This bacteria can also lead to infections in the eyes, ears and open wounds if one goes swimming in water with high bacteria populations. In fact, after Hurricane Katrina there were 22 cases of wounds being infected by V. parahaemolyticus, resulting in two deaths.

As the climate changes due to global warming, the oceans are changing as well. Increased melting of polar ice caps is causing waters closer to the poles to become less salty, whereas increased evaporation from waters further away from the poles is causing those regions to become more salty. With this increase in heat and salt content, bacteria like V. parahaemolyticus are becoming more common, even at some higher latitudes.

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Like the canary in the coal mine, we've often used the smallest of animals as an alarm for the unseen dangers around us. That particular practice has fallen by the wayside, but when it was in practice, miners took the warning seriously if the canary died. This is more of a 'shrimp in the ocean brine' situation, but the dangerous gases remain the same — methane and carbon dioxide. It's about time we took the warning seriously.

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