A shrimp dream come true
Company shows it can raise crustaceans using technology, specialized tanks far from the Gulf
LACOSTE — After 18 years and $35.4 million in development, the founders of NaturalShrimp are convinced shrimp lot No. 180 at the company’s remote Medina County fish-tank complex is their aquaculture pay dirt.
The translucent, beady-eyed crustaceans zooming through the salty water are now into their 22nd week of growth. They’re about 5 inches long and weigh about 18 grams apiece. They are gulping down food pellets dropped hourly with abandon, well on their way to a harvest weight of 23 grams.
NaturalShrimp is one of the companies trying to prove you don’t need a big body of saltwater like the Gulf of Mexico to raise shrimp — that
they can grow to commercial proportions in specialized tanks on land. The business’s aim is to deliver fresh shrimp to restaurants and markets far from the sea.
Survival rates at the Natural Shrimp facility are beating expectations and could wind up being well above the 50 percent rate considered notable in the industry. For the first time, workers haven’t had to wade through the tanks with buckets, fishing out floating dead shrimp.
The next step is to restock after harvest and add three more 65,000-gallon indoor tanks to the complex. From there, the company will attempt to replicate the process in places far from the sea, but a less than a half-day’s drive from metro areas teeming with markets clamoring for chemical-free, never-frozen shrimp.
“We know it works — it’s just now ramping up production,” co-owner Gerald Easterling said. “It’s not a concept any more, it’s a reality.”
By “it,” Easterling was referring to a pricey system of pumps, filters and a proprietary device, which after the latest round of tinkering, is in its fifth iteration. It essentially uses selective electrical currents to destroy the bacteria and break up the effluent ammonia, a waste product, that so far have destroyed crop after crop of shrimp — and globally made shrimp farming a shaky proposition.
“It basically singes (shrimp killing bacteria) and disintegrates it so it’s not able to spread,” said Peter Letizia, CEO of Floridabased F&T Water Solutions, which partnered with Natural Shrimp to develop the technology.
Electrostimulation has been around for more than 100 years, Letizia said, and is commonly used to sterilize surgical equipment. But it’s expanding to commercial agriculture. Letizia also has been working with fruit, vegetable and marijuana growers to test its capabilities as an alternative to pesticides and herbicides.
But the expense and complexity so far has kept the technology from widespread use in food production.
“Trying to just put electricity in water is basically the science, but there is an art behind exactly how do you do it,” he said. “What kind of electrodes do you use? What kind of power source do you use? What kind of spacing? How much volume? There are all those intricacies that take it from a science and make it more like an art.”
Natural Shrimp started in 2001 in a tank in the basement of co-owner and Chief Technology Officer Tom Untermeyer, then a retired program manager from the San Antonio research and development organization Southwest Research Institute. Jim Bloom, managing partner at San Franciso investment firm Vopne Capital, called Natural Shrimp a “fundamentally attractive investment.”
Natural Shrimp is a penny stock, trading at about 8 cents a share.
“Natural Shrimp continues to show signs of breaking out after underperforming in 2018 on investors taking note of the company’s push to strengthen its growth prospects,” Bloom wrote in an analysis published Jan. 22. “The company is fresh from receiving a new patent for the commercially viable system for growing aquatic species indoors. The company now owns worldwide rights for growing shrimp species indoors leveraging its new-patented technology.”
Vopne is not an investor in Natural Shrimp.
Shrimp is the United States’ top-selling seafood, with the average consumer eating 4.4 pounds of it per year. As ocean stocks have declined from overfishing and pollution, farming it has become a big business, overtaking wild harvesting in 2007.
Traditional shrimp farms are built on coastlines that have a ready supply of saltwater to fill open ponds. Inland shrimp farming has been evolving, but production has been inconsistent and companies have had to stock their ponds at low density due to water treatments that introduce bacteria and cloud the water.
“The reason we’re here, (why) we stayed with it, is we always knew the market and the need,” Easterling said. “What we have here is phenomenal. It answers all the problems in the industry as far as raising aquatic species indoors.”
Texas leads in U.S. shrimp cultivation. But that production has declined, from a 2003 peak of 9 million pounds valued at about $18 million to between 2.5 million and 2.9 million pounds per year. Texas shrimp farms in 2016 generated revenue of about $8.3 million.
Aquaculture consultant Granvil Treece said the farms have taken hits from young shrimp not surviving the transport or acclimating to man-made environments. Fewer than half make it to market. Bowers Shrimp Farm, which operates the state’s largest shrimp farm, near Matagorda Bay, had the state’s highest survival rate at 54 percent.
It’s the same for farms around the world. And even when the larvae take, shrimp in all producing countries have frequently succumbed to disease outbreaks. There also are concerns about aquaculture operations damaging estuaries and contaminating natural fisheries with toxic outflows.
A 1999 disease outbreak in Ecuador nearly wiped out that nation’s shrimp farm industry, as well as some 100,000 jobs. Mexico in 2016 suffered devastating losses to disease and premature harvest.
Many in the industry thought they’d found the solution with biofloc, a water-filtration method that uses probiotics to help neutralize bad bacteria. But after six years and an investment of $15 million, Natural Shrimp’s leaders concluded biofloc didn’t meet the needs of their high-density business plan.
One week they’d sell out their shrimp at the Pearl Farmers Market, the next they’d be noshows. Harvests would, within a few days, drop from 1,000 pounds to 40 as bacteria quickly proliferated.
“We would have tanks full, and then we’d start having them die off,” Easterling said. By the time they noticed the first few dead ones, it was too late.
While Natural Shrimp won’t harvest the current tank until mid-to-late February, the goal for the 30,000-square-foot facility is 4,000 pounds of shrimp a month. The aim is to produce 7,000 pounds each week once the new tanks are operational, sending truckloads rumbling past neighboring corn, cotton and sunflower fields to buyers like Michael Scott, the corporate chef at Rosewood Texas Raised Wagyu Beef.
Scott first came across the shrimp about a decade ago at a Dallas food show. He has since become a Natural Shrimp shareholder.
“I thought they were Hawaiian blues,” a variety of shrimp, he said. “I walked over, snapped the head off and I bit into the tail raw . ... I said, ‘This is buttery — this is very clean.’ I said this is like the ‘Kobe beef of shrimp.’ ”
NaturalShrimp President Gerald Easterling, left, and Michael Pineda examine almost-market-ready shrimp in their LaCoste production facility. Survival rates at the facility are surpassing expectations and could wind up being well above the 50 percent rate considered notable in the industry.
In LaCoste, southwest of San Antonio, the company seeks to fulfill the needs of metropolitan areas that are teeming with markets clamoring for chemicalfree, neverfrozen shrimp.
At NaturalShrimp, the sea creatures are raised in 65,000-gallon indoor tanks. A patented system uses electrical currents to destroy the bacteria and effluent that typically destroy shrimp crops.