The Shrimp Farm Market's vision for a Michigan shrimp industry

This is the second part of in a two-part discussion about my visit to The Shrimp Farm Market in Okemos. I already detailed the differences between farming and harvesting shrimp from the wild. Today, I am going to focus on what makes The Shrimp Farm Market such a valuable resource and potential for us in Michigan. Russ Allen of The Shrimp Farm Market describes his vision. “I have created an industry in Ecuador, I have created an industry in Belize, and I’ve done it in other countries around the world. My goal is to create an industry here in Michigan, not just a little shrimp farm. That is what I am actively working on right now. I am looking to raise the money for the first commercial project.”

Borden - The Shrimp Farm Market Sign A veteran of the shrimp farming industry for more than 30 years, Allen was ideally placed to spearhead an indoor, biologically secure and sustainable model for growing shrimp when he moved back to Michigan with his family in the 1990s.

“We never expected that it would be competitive to grow shrimp this way. Through the process of developing the technology and learning a lot about what was going on here in the States, we learned that it can be done on a commercial scale. It can be the cheapest way to farm shrimp in the world and the most environmentally friendly way. We can compete with China.”

The biggest cost in aquaculture is food.

As Allen explains, “Our feeds are the same as the other feeds. But in the United States we have the cheapest grain costs in the world. Through our system we have shown we can grow shrimp with less than a one to one conversion ratio. We can grow one pound of shrimp with less than one pound of food.”

“And a typical shrimp farm would be a pound and a half to two pounds of food for a pound of shrimp with higher feed costs. When you take a look at combining the ability to have really cheap feed and the lowest feed costs - it allows you be very competitive.”

The reason that the feed costs are so low for Allen is he has developed a system whereby the food is essentially recycled. The shrimp release ammonia, bacteria turn the ammonia to nitrites, another form of bacteria turn the nitrites to nitrates, and then those nitrates can be turned into more bacteria or they can feed algae. Shrimp will then eat the bacteria and the algae and start the whole process over again.

As Allen explains, “Everything is reused. Shrimp are bacterial grazers. The waste turns into bacteria and the bacteria turns into food for the shrimp. In the end we don’t have any significant waste or sludge because we are recycling everything. The bacteria are doing it for us.”

The Shrimp Farm Market oversees every step of the rearing process, the breeding of the shrimp, the spawning (a mature female shrimp can produce from 60,000-200,000 eggs at once), the rearing of the larvae, and the maturation of the shrimp. The entire process takes about five to six months.

Allen is adding whitefish and yellow perch to diversify his offering and to offer more opportunities to grow algae to feed the shrimp.

As Tim Redmond, of Blue Horizon Organic Shrimp Seafood Company, says, “When you look at Russ Allen’s operation, not only it is a good clean system, chemical free - there is no destruction of other life. You can feel good as a consumer.” Most shrimp trawling involves a significant amount of collateral damage to the benthos and benthic zone, as I discussed yesterday.

The Shrimp Farm Market shrimp is sold via Eat Local Eat Natural to Eve, the Grange, the Gandy Dancer, and Ann Arbor Brewing Co. You can also purchase the shrimp at The Shrimp Farm Market store, open Friday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m., located at 3450 Meridian Road, Okemos.

Contact Allen to talk to him about his private placement memorandum for a commercially viable Michigan shrimp industry.

Michigan consumes 10 million pounds a year of shrimp - wouldn’t it be great if we could not only feed that demand, but feed America’s demand for 1.5 billion pounds a year? Allen thinks we can.

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The Shrimp Farm Market: lessons on shrimp farming and trawling

This is the first part of in a two-part discussion about my visit to The Shrimp Farm Market in Okemos. Today I am going to focus on two ways shrimp are grown for consumption: farmed and trawled.

Borden - skillet of shrimp

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, American consumption of shrimp has nearly doubled since 1996 to more than four pounds a person (nearly 25 percent of the total fish and shellfish we eat a year are shrimp). The United States is the largest importer of shrimp in the world; we import over one and a half billion pounds of shrimp to a tune of $4 billion a year. That shrimp is either farmed or trawled (raked from the ocean floor).

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Russ Allen of The Shrimp Farm Market, a longtime veteran and expert in the world of shrimp, at his indoor shrimp farming facility in Okemos. The smell of the building immediately pulled me back to sixth grade science class, with crayfish tanks redolent along the windows. I mention this to Allen as he walks in front of me towards his office, and his voice smiles back to me, "I guess in some ways this is what this is - a big biology class."

To continue that conceit, Allen has spent 30 years in the shrimp farming classroom: setting up new farming areas, innovating, improving and always pushing for a better process. It all began in Ecuador.

A graduate of the University of Michigan Fishery program, Allen left the States and traveled to the Galapagos to run a boat for tourists. After a few years he decided to join two fellow Americans in the infant shrimp farming industry.

"I went and worked for free with one of the guys who was running the processing plant. We grew about 100,000 lbs of shrimp that year, in the late 70s maybe? The industry started to grow incredibly rapidly; there was a lot of World Bank, USAID money available to make it grow."

"Our goal was that we had always considered shrimp trawling to be one of the most environmentally damaging ways of fishing, period. Therefore, we had assumed that shrimp farming was a potentially better environmental alternative."

Shrimp trawling involves pulling a cone shaped net along the bottom of the ocean floor, collecting everything into that net. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “as many species of shrimp stay close to the bottom, good bottom contact with the ground gear is a requirement for efficient capture.” Fishermen can put weights on the trawls to scrape the ocean floor to a depth of 800 meters.

Tim Redmond of Blue Horizon Organic Seafood Co. spoke to me about the effects of trawling to the benthos (the organisms that thrive along the seabed, or the benthic zone). "The environmental side of trawling has long-term effects; it can take decades to replace what is lost when the bottom is raked. The balance of the ecosystem takes years to rebuild."

Redmond spoke to me about the bycatch, a term that indicates the amount of other life that is pulled up with the trawls. "Typically it is an 8 to 1 or an 10 to 1 venture."

For every one pound of shrimp, eight pounds of other marine life is pulled up as well. The eight pounds of bycatch is often dead or dying when it is thrown back into the sea. There are methods that reduce the bycatch ratio, specifically the Bycatch Reduction Device (BRD) and the Turtle Excluder Device. According to Redmond, the Georgia fishery that utilizes such methods has reduced bycatch to 5 to 1.

One pound of shrimp harvested for every five pounds of dead fish: Easy to see why Allen felt that farming might be a better alternative. However, shrimp farming, as Allen readily admits, "has taken a lot of flak from the environmentalists. Not to say that there weren't problems, there were problems - like any industry anywhere, there are problem kids, there are problem people and there are problem shrimp farms."

Shrimp farming has been attacked for two reasons. Farms are located in ecologically sensitive mangrove forests and estuaries along the coastal areas. In 2006, the main suppliers of shrimp to the global marketplace were the developing economies of Thailand, China, Indonesia, India and Ecuador. The second concern arises from the waste.

Shrimp and their larvae need water. When the shrimp are harvested, the water is often dumped. The wastewater often contains salt (the shrimp require ocean conditions), fertilizers (to grow the plankton more quickly to feed the shrimp), antibiotics (for the crowded conditions of the shrimp in the ponds) and pesticides (to kill unwelcome additions). Captive shrimp suffer from a variety of viruses and, overall, do not have the strength of wild food.

However, as Redmond points out, "the capacity of the oceans and the waters of the world to feed protein to the growing number of people in the world is getting to the tipping point."

That fact was what encouraged Allen, when he and his family moved back to Michigan in the early 1990s, to switch from developing a shrimp farming industry in Belize to develop a way to "farm shrimp that was environmentally friendly and biologically secure."

Not only has Allen developed a system that is completely enclosed, alleviating the two environmental arguments, he has developed a system that is price competitive to the "third world costs where you are paying people $2-$3 a day."

Stay tuned tomorrow for a tour of The Shrimp Farm Market and Allen's vision to create a shrimp industry in Michigan.

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