The elusive, not so elusive Ghost Shrimp

Robert Adami, Jr.
The elusive, not so elusive Ghost Shrimp
Figure 1.

The Ghost Shrimp is a little animal, rarely seen unless you intentionally go slurping it out from beneath the water’s edge on the beach.  These little guys belong to the crustacean family and are properly known as the Beach Ghost Shrimp, Callichirus islagrande.  The Ghost Shrimp is small, somewhat transparent, and grows to about four inches in length (Figure 1).  It burrows itself into the sand and lives in elaborate tunnels beneath the sandy beach surface. These small critters are an excellent bait source for coastal fishing.  Ghost Shrimp can be used to catch Red Drum, Spotted Seatrout, Black Drum, Gulf Whiting and a variety of other marine fishes. However, since Ghost Shrimp are not readily available at bait stands, anglers need to collect them on their own.  This is a tedious and labor-intensive task, but the rewards are fulfilling when you catch a fish with your own bait collections. Because Ghost Shrimp are elusive, you must know where to look to catch your own.

To find Ghost Shrimp colonies, walk the beach and take note of the little volcano-like uprisings on the surface of the sand.  Below the surface are the different colonies inhabited by Ghost Shrimp. The colonies are made up of elaborate tunnels that can go three to four feet below the surface of the sand. They are held in place by a mucous lining extruded by Ghost Shrimp as they burrow.  Another tell-tale sign of Ghost Shrimp colonies are the many small fecal pellets that float out of the burrow holes and onto the beach surf zone.  Many people say these small pellets look like brown sprinkles on an ice cream cone.  When there are large colonies on an area of the beach, you can see lots of fecal pellets on the beach surface that move as the waves push the pellets around on the sand.  When this happens, the wavy lines of the fecal pellets replicate the surf moving in and out of the beach.

My first experience with this little creature was in a college invertebrate zoology class with Dr. Bart Cook at Corpus Christi State University, which is now Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.  Our class collected Ghost Shrimp on the surf zone with a syringe like device called a “slurp gun.” Supposedly, the slurp gun originated in Australia to collect a similar species called “yabbies.”   Years later, local anglers started making their own slurp guns to collect Ghost Shrimp for bait.  These devices are quite simple, and, at less than $20 a gun, are inexpensive to build. The slurp gun is made up of PVC parts and a rubber stopper.  So, when you put this unit into the sand over a Ghost Shrimp hole, you pull the plunger back just like you would a syringe and it sucks out what is hiding in the burrow.  A small sieve or net can be used to collect the sandy contents from the end of slurp gun.  If you are lucky, you can catch a few Ghost Shrimp with each suction.  However, you would need to do this several times to collect enough Ghost Shrimp for your fishing venture. 

Exploitation of the Ghost Shrimp for commercial bait sales instigated the establishment of rules to protect state beaches and marshy areas from damage by people trying to collect Ghost Shrimp. At one time, there was an individual who wanted to “blast” the Ghost Shrimp out of their burrows with a portable pump and generator. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department felt this type of operation would damage the beach and marsh areas. So, the 20 Ghost Shrimp per angler per day limit was first established in Texas around 1998 in the “1998-99 Shrimp and Fisheries Proclamations” by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Therefore, each angler is only allowed to catch and keep 20 Ghost Shrimp per day, but there is no size restriction on this 20-count limit.  You also need to have a valid fishing license to collect Ghost Shrimp.  Since the Padre Island National Seashore is on federal land, the collection of Ghost Shrimp by any method is strictly prohibited there. My experience collecting Ghost Shrimp provided a good learning experience of what is beneath the surface of Texas beaches.  With these state and federal rules in place, Beach Ghost Shrimp will be protected, and Texas beaches and marshes will continue to provide great, undisturbed habitat for all the creatures that inhabit the coastal zone.