By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C., Nov 3 (Reuters) - The size of wild shrimp hauls off the southern Atlantic coast have plunged in recent months as a parasite has made it harder for the creatures to breathe, according to state wildlife officials in Georgia and South Carolina.
Experts said they believe black gill disease, caused by a tiny parasite, contributed to a die-off of white shrimp between August and October, typically the prime catch season.
The disease does not kill shrimp directly but hurts their endurance and makes them more vulnerable to predators.
"It's like the shrimp are smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and now they're having to go run a marathon," said Mel Bell, director of South Carolina's Office of Fisheries Management.
"Shrimpers are reporting to us that they dump the bag on the deck, and the shrimp are just dead."
South Carolina shrimpers hauled in 44,000 pounds of shrimp in September, less than 6 percent of the September, 2012 catch of more than 750,000 pounds, Bell said.
The August take was down nearly 75 percent from the same month the previous year, he said.
Georgia shrimpers have caught fewer than half the number they usually catch in August, September and October, said Patrick Geer, chief of marine fisheries for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Wild-caught shrimp generate $6 million to $8-million in annual revenue in South Carolina and about $12 million a year in Georgia, officials said.
Bell said the shrimp is safe to eat as long as it has not spoiled. The parasite is only on its gills, which come off when the head is removed for human consumption.
A shrimp company operator in Florida said she had not seen black gill disease there this year.
"We have seen it in the past in Florida, but it's when the shrimp in Georgia have moved down," said Marilyn Solorzano, who operates Miss Marilyn Louise Shrimp Co. on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville.
"There haven't been enough shrimp in Georgia this year to move down to Florida," she said.
Researchers in Georgia are studying the life cycle of the parasite that causes black gill disease in hopes of finding a way to combat it, Geer said.
Officials blamed drought for earlier outbreaks in the last decade, but this year the U.S. Southeast saw record rainfall.
Too much rain changed water salinity and upset the delicate balance of salt and fresh water in the creeks where shrimp grow up, Bell said.
"When the shrimp are stressed, they're susceptible to being infected with the parasite," he said.
Wildlife agency officials in Georgia will meet with the state's shrimp association this month to determine just how bad the crop has been.
If data indicate a major decline, Georgia will apply for relief funds from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Geer said.
South Carolina officials have not determined whether to seek disaster relief, Bell said.
Tommy Edwards, a veteran shrimper in Charleston, said he is barely getting by.
"I'm not making any money," said Edwards, 52. "Normally, we have enough money where we're set for the winter and repairs and so forth, but we don't have enough for a month's worth of bills."
Black gill disease tends to taper off as waters get colder in November, officials said. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Ellen Wulfhorst)