While the plans for CP Foods' new US shrimp farm take traditional shrimp production well "out of its comfort zone," the man behind the project, vice president and shrimp industry veteran Robins McIntosh, believes that once proven the concept will help evolve Western production.
Homegrown Shimp, details of which were announced in a press statement last week, is a work in progress.
"Many people I work with say, ‘you are taking some serious risks’," McIntosh told IntraFish. "Fundamentally, it works, but we are breaking a lot of norms, and it is really about having the audacity to do that."
These norms the company is breaking are rudimentary to the way shrimp farming has historically operated.
Instead of an open pond or a covered raceway, CP Foods' Homegrown Shrimp farm is housed in a super-insulated metal building to maintain an optimum 30 degrees Celsius without high heating costs, meaning shrimp can be produced close to any market. It uses artificial sea water made from freshwater mixed with salts, recycling it over and over for "years and years and years" as has been done in CPF’s inland broodstock facilities. It is also working on the economic basis that with CPF’s specially bred SPF “Turbo Shrimp," it can reduce cycle times to yield more product at lower densities than in traditional operations.
Stepping out of the comfort zone
While the farm employs a recirculating aquaculture system, it is not what most people think of when they read the term "RAS," which generally conjours up images of super high-tech, expensive systems like those used by companies such as Atlantic Sapphire.
While Homegrown's system recirculates water, it uses water treatment in the tanks in the form of microbial bioflocs established from a bacterial mix, with the primary function of nitrifying the shrimp wastes.
The artificial seawater produced by the company has been a "pleasant surprise" as it has provided equal to or better performance than seawater obtained from the Gulf of Thailand, said McIntosh.
Less surprisingly, there are costs associated with this ground-breaking venture, but unlike many of the world's land-based operations, these costs come largely upfront in the form of the building and regulatory obligations, which McIntosh was not willing to divulge numbers on quite yet.
The costs are, however, substantial enough to require a premium price in the market.
This price point is yet to be determined, but McIntosh is hopeful it will sit in the range of $7 (€6) per kilo direct costs, significantly higher than the price of the thousands of tons of frozen imported shrimp that enters the country each year from India, Vietnam, Indonesia and other producing countries, but substantially lower than the small volume of shrimp already home-grown in the United States in more traditional systems.
The selling point? "Made in the USA," says McIntosh, as well as “fresh, never frozen," citing the concerns around food safety and ethical issues that often cloud the image of imported product in the market.
The company is also working for some way to get closer to the end market, which could reduce the price point of the product.
“We would like to sell to outlets that can appreciate the quality of being fresh and locally produced,” said McIntosh.
“Most people welcome this,” he said, even the most critical NGOs for whom the term RAS is like a golden ticket. “It really ticks all the boxes.”
Ramping up growth rates
To ensure this price point doesn’t rise higher, the real crux of the economics is the growth rate of the shrimp, which relies on a constant temperature. At the right rate, the farm can yield four harvests a year with a culture cycle of 80 days to 20-25 grams.
For this, shrimp are stocked at 300-350 per square meter to produce 5-6 kilos per square meter with an average growth rate of 0.28 grams per day.
While CPF is achieving 1 gram per day in the linear growth phrase of its nucleus breeding center, for commercial estimations McIntosh prefers to aim for a more conservative 0.28 grams “and hope for a pleasant surprise."
In an industry infamous for its unpredictability of production, consistency is also a key aim of McIntosh, who cites the modern-day chicken farm as an example.
"Broiler poultry has less uncertainty. It has a much higher yield per square meter of culture space, resulting in lower costs with lower acceptable margins.”
On the contrary, McIntosh says that when "we stock a shrimp farm, we have no idea what will come out."
The hatchery at Homegrown Shrimp is already operational using CP's specialist SPF “Turbo” stock that has seen a successful result in CPF’s’ Asian operations and is "critical" in making the operation economically viable.
“These are world class genetics,” said McIntosh, who adds that lack of availability of high quality PLs is why the European and US land-based shrimp industry has not done well to this point.
“We are investing to invigorate the fledgling Western shrimp culture industry,” said McIntosh.
“We want to stimulate growth.”