"I never meant to be a geneticist," US shrimp producer and Disney supplier Robin Pearl tells IntraFish.
But seven years ago that is exactly what Pearl was forced to become when shrimp at his Florida farm began dying and, despite trying everything, he couldn't seem to fix the problem.
"We tried all the lotions and potions and different systems and different feed and nothing worked until we brought in different stock from Ecuador."
While these shrimp survived, they didn't grow well, so Pearl started down a track of researching the genetics of the broodstock they came from and the research and development being done in Ecuador. From there he began selecting his own broodstock and running an in-house genetics program to ensure good harvests from his own farm.
Five years later, Pearl began to sell these broodstock to hatcheries worldwide, where he has discovered a real need for better quality shrimp.
'I shouldn't have had the opportunity'
His success brings with it mixed feelings.
"How does this farmer from Florida become No. 1 in the world when it comes to broodstock and genetics? It is not because I am so great and wonderful. It's because the competition was so dismal. It's bad that I should ever have had this opportunity."
The opportunity, however, has taken Pearl around the world and given him insight into what is going wrong on Asia's farms. And the solution, as he sees it, is not rocket science.
"It's all about survival," said Pearl.
It seems like stating the obvious, but Pearl is critical of the "obsession," as he sees it, to produce faster and faster growing shrimp, which he says has come at the expense of ruggedness and the ability to handle stress.
"They're all building beautiful Porsches and Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but farmers in India don't need a Porsche, they need a truck."
The message is difficult to spread in Asia's highly fragmented industries without a huge marketing campaign, but it is beginning to resonate, according to Pearl, who says that as soon as farmers get to try these sturdier shrimp, then they want to continue to source them.
"Demand is being driven from the bottom up," he tells IntraFish.
In need of a new metric
While Pearl's distribution of slower-growing, more stress-resistant broodstock is increasing, particularly in China, for Asia to continue to compete there needs to be a paradigm shift in how the industry views success.
"Are we farmers or are we gamblers?" is the question Pearl repeatedly asks his audiences at conference presentations, saying the industry has a mentality of stocking its ponds, then praying the shrimp survive to harvest.
Fast growth is then deemed necessary so they can reach a harvestable size before they all die.
"It's not a way to run a business," said Pearl, who said farmers end up putting more and more shrimp in the water to try and make up for those that are dying, which in some cases is up to 60 percent.
"Do you think that the poultry industry says, 'Oh, we expect half of our chickens to die so let's put another 50 percent extra bonus chickens in the pen'?"
All it takes to negate 80 percent of losses from his perspective is better husbandry and monitoring of biomass, with simple equipment and more time spent, says Pearl.
While he sees benefit in all the high-tech solutions currently being brought to market, he thinks spending $300 (€300) on an oxygen meter and sending someone out to check the ponds a few times a day, would make a world of difference in itself.
He also echoes other industry experts in their dismissal of disease being the root problem of failed harvests.
"Vibrio is just there waiting for an opportunity," he said. "And so if you do a good job of maintaining the animal without stress, I think that's gonna be huge."
Slow down, charge more
As for the need for speed, Pearl finds it nonsensical.
He points out that the average Indonesian or Indian farmer has 2.2 crops per year on a 70-day culture cycle.
"What are they doing the other 200 days of the year? Why does it matter if your shrimp need another 2-3 weeks to grow?"
In this sense, a hardier shrimp with a longer growth cycle is preferable; then farmers can wait to harvest the shrimp for longer.
"Because then you get an even bigger shrimp and you get more money. But they can't do that because if they wait that long they know the shrimp will be dead," Pearl said.
"The consumer that goes to the store, they don't care how long it took to grow the shrimp. They just care how big it is and that it is good quality. And so at the end of the day, you get what you get paid for."
The Ecuador model
Ecuador, by contrast, is a prime example of what Pearl preaches as far as managing ponds and stocking normal quantities.
"They're not getting super growth, but they're getting good survival," he said. "And they're making money."
Together with CP Vice President and friend Robins McIntosh, Pearl wants to introduce a new metric, measuring the number of successful harvest cycles between crop failures.
"This boom and bust, it's just nuts. Absolutely nuts. And when people don't have predictable harvest, they don't have predictable success. They don't make the investments. The managers don't get paid, then people don't get any bonuses.
"It is all just a downward spiral."