Dwindling shrimp stocks off Greenland’s coast have local fishermen and authorities fretting that one of the island’s main sources of income, coined “pink gold”, could soon vanish. “We must sound the alarm bells because it would be a catastrophe for the island’s economy if the shrimp were to disappear,” Helle Siegstad, a biologist who heads up the research department at Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources (INR) said.

Although Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory, has been attempting to diversify its economy to include more income from tourism and mining, fishing still accounts for nearly 90 percent of all its exports, and shrimp make up more than 50 percent of those sales, according to the local statistics agency. “It would have serious consequences for Greenland’s economy if the stocks disappear, since we have virtually nothing to replace them,” Siegstad said.

In Ilulissat, in the west of the icy island, fishermen say they are having a harder time filling their shrimp nets and are being forced farther and farther from the coast to find the valuable crustaceans. “We weren’t able to fill our quota last year,” one fisherman lamented. Royal Greenland, the world’s leading provider of cold-water shrimp, confirmed that its shrimp boats were reporting shrinking stocks, while Greenland’s main employer’s association said fishermen were complaining of soaring fuel costs as they were forced to stay out longer to catch the same amount of shrimp.

But while everyone seems to be in agreement that there are fewer shrimp, with INR figures showing a drop from 150,536 tonnes caught in 2005 to 139,500 tonnes last year, it is unclear what is causing the decline. “We really don’t know why the shrimps are becoming rarer,” Siegstad said, venturing however to speculate that “it could be due to a combination of global warming and the fact that predators such as cod are moving back into Greenland waters.”

“We’ve noticed in recent decades that when the cod stocks shrink, the shrimp stocks grow, and vice-versa,” she added, pointing out that the shrimp biomass off the island had been shrinking since 2003.

While Siegstad rejects that overfishing is to blame for the dwindling access to the tasty crustaceans, she and most of her colleagues have in vain recommended that the local government dramatically slash quotas.”It is necessary that the quota of 150,000 tonnes of shrimp a year be cut by at least 30 percent and brought down to 110,000 tonnes” this year, and that it be cut further next year, she said. If that does not happen the most pessimistic projections say “stocks could plunge to 40,000 tonnes within four to five years,” she said.

Local finance minister Aleqa Hammond meanwhile said she was leaning towards the theory that climate change was to blame for the gradual disappearance of Greenland’s pink gold. “The Greenlandic economy is based on a single source of revenue: fishing, which is changing due to climate change,” she said. “Warming of two degrees Celsius has a huge impact,” she pointed out, insisting the higher temperatures “explain why the shrimp are emigrating farther north.”

Some Greenlanders are hoping the replenishing cod stocks could help the money flowing in even as the shrimp disappear, but Siegstad warned it would take a long time for cod stocks to reach the sky-high levels of the 1960s. “There is not enough cod to cover the possible losses from shrimp, and there will not be for five to 10 years,” she said. “And if we aren’t careful, if we do not give it time to build up its stocks, we will make the cod disappear,” she said, blasting a government decision to set an annual catch quota of 15,000 tonnes of cod instead of banning all fishing of the species. The challenge, she said, was “to make sure desperate fishermen faced with declining shrimp stocks do not destroy the re-establishment of the cod stocks.”