Air Date: Week of July 4, 1997
Shrimp is the premier seafood; and demand for the curved crustaceans is at an all time high. Many of today's shrimp are harvested on farms, part of the burgeoning aqua culture movement. Some say aqua culture is preferable to decimating wild stocks at sea. But, others say it takes an undue toll on the environment. But, one Michigan shrimp farmer says he has an answer: grow the shrimp - indoors. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.
CURWOOD: Deep-fried. Butter-fried. Peel and eat, or drenched in garlic and butter, for many people shrimp is the premier seafood, and demand for the curved crustaceans is at an all-time high. But shrimp fishing and production can be highly destructive to the environment. Ten pounds of other sea creatures are usually thrown away as by-catch, when just one pound of wild shrimp is taken from the oceans, and that practice has decimated fish populations in shrimping waters. In recent years, people in tropical regions have taken to shrimp farming, but at the expense of mangrove swamps. These shrimp farms often have to be closed within a few years, after waste problems lead to infections. But one Michigan shrimp farmer says he has an answer: grow the shrimp indoors. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson explains.
NELSON: When Russ Allen bought this house and land near Lansing, Michigan, he had his eye on shrimp farming. It seems an unlikely setting, though, since he owns just 6 acres. But Mr. Allen is planning to do something that's never been done successfully before: to mass-produce shrimp indoors. Russ Allen lives in a modest house with his wife and 2 children, but he says in a small blue building behind their home resides the future of shrimp farming.
ALLEN: If we can get the price of shrimp down, through our production costs, there's a huge, unlimited market here in the United States, and I think it can be the cheapest seafood.
NELSON: Russ Allen has been in the shrimp business 20 years, building farms all over Latin America, and consulting around the world. But he says the shrimp industry needs to move away from these outdoor ponds, because they're wreaking environmental havoc.
ALLEN: You can see, it's happened in every single country in the world where shrimp farming has been successful, and grown at a rapid rate, within 3 or 4 years, there's been an environmental crash, and the industry has been completely destroyed.
NELSON: The crashes are caused by high concentrations of shrimp feed and feces in the ponds and coastal wetlands where they're usually grown. These extra nutrients have created a deadly cycle for the shrimp.
ALLEN: You've got effluents out of these ponds, which cause degradation of the estuaries, which ruins the ecosystem, which then creates these diseases, which have come back to affect the farmers.
NELSON: The result is, the shrimp are infected by viruses, and they die, often the farmers don't even know the shrimp have been harmed until harvest. They just keep throwing in feed for 5 months, then when they drain the ponds, they often find only 2% or 3% of the shrimp have survived, compared to the 80% or 90% survival rate in a healthy pond.
ALLEN: The very bad thing about it has been now, is that both in Asia and in Latin America, the farmers go into an area, develop all these farms; as soon as it crashes, they just leave, and slash and burn, and go on to a new area, and build new farms.
NELSON: Russ Allen says, the solution to the problems of nutrient-loading, habitat-destruction, and disease issues plaguing the shrimp industry, is to produce the animals inside.
ALLEN: Down here, we've got the tanks where I bring the well water in, warm it up; the floor in the building is heated with hot water, radiant heat. So I bring in the well water, let it warm up, then I can mix the salt in it.
NELSON: Mr. Allen has spent the last 5 years developing this indoor system, where the crustaceans are grown in what look like shrimp high-rises, wooden crate-like tanks stacked from floor to ceiling.
[Pump motor sounds]
ALLEN: The idea is to put the smaller shrimp up in the top, in the smallest tank. They stay one month in each tank; they're drained down, just like draining a bathtub, from one tank to the next, and then you harvest the bottom tank when they're 5 months old. Having the different tanks allows us to individually feed the animals at different sizes, so we can present the correct feed to the animal at that size. That's really the whole concept of what we're trying to do.
NELSON: Russ Allen makes it all seem so simple, but this way of shrimp farming is still experimental, and most of this harvest won't get anywhere near the dinner table. Instead, Mr. Allen will use many of the shrimp for breeding. He's working with the US Marine Shrimp Farming Program to develop shrimp that will thrive in an indoor system. When these shrimp are 8 to 9 inches long, he'll harvest them, and set aside the hardiest ones for breeding.
ALLEN: The 2 keys, in the long run, to this type of facility's success are going to be genetics, to get the proper genetically engineered animal, #1, and #2, to have the proper feeds to take care of the animal through the various stages of the growth cycle.
NELSON: There's been a lot of excitement about Russ Allen's idea for indoor shrimp farming. He says, within 15 years it's possible shrimp prices will drop to 2 or 3 dollars a pound, because of his system, and consumers can't wait. Mr. Allen also says investors are constantly trying to get in on the process he's developing. But Russ Allen is a cautious man. He knows the key to making his indoor shrimp farm successful is to go slowly. His eventual goal is to move to a facility large enough to produce 50 million pounds of shrimp a year, about 1/3 of the total current US production. But he says what he doesn't want to see is a huge growth in indoor shrimp farming, with disastrous environmental results down the road.
ALLEN: It has to be completely environmentally acceptable, because other you just don't have a future to make the thing grow and be really commercially viable. You just have to face all those issues up front and take care of them all, and that's really what we're trying to do.
NELSON: Russ Allen has already begun to face these issues, minimizing water use by recycling it through a series of tubes and filters, so the only water lost is what evaporates or splashes onto the floor. But Mr. Allen is still considering what to do with the solid waste from the shrimp. He says, right now it's not a big problem, since his 20-tank demonstration project only generates about a pound of waste a day. But once he scales up to a commercially viable size, the waste will increase dramatically. Mr. Allen says experiments have shown the sludge from shrimp ponds, a combination of solid waste and mud, has worked well as a fertilizer. He expects the same will be true for the pure manure he filters out of the shrimp tanks, and he plans to build a greenhouse to test the idea. If it works, he'll package the waste and sell it. Russ Allen hopes to have his commercial operation going by the year 2000, and he says it'll be a few years after that before he's feeding the country with his shrimp. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson, in Okemos, Michigan.
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