Better Living Through Aquaculture
The life of a shrimp—born and raised in the desert.
The idea seemed apocryphal. About a mile and a half outside of a tiny town called Imperial, Texas, through the red dust that seemed to coat everything (including the inside of my mouth), into the barren plain of the Permian Basin, I would ask for a weathered marine biologist named Bart. And in the most landlocked place I could imagine, he would feed me the most delicious, sweetest shrimp I had ever eaten, grown in his backyard.
The notion came from a trusted gourmand, so naturally I hopped in a car and drove northeast out of the Davis Mountains of West Texas, where I was visiting at the time. And sure enough, I found Bart Reid, who had come from Fort Worth in the 1990s to assist Texas A&M University in tapping the 270-million-year-old Permian Sea Basin in search of its ancient, perfectly saline waters (less salty than the ocean, but comparable to bay water). Having concluded that project, Reid was by the time we met growing shrimp on 64 acres of shallow ponds on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. His crustaceans went on to become the first to be certified organic. This designation was the result of the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing farm-raised seafood to qualify based on its adherence to organic-livestock-farming rules.
It was nearly 10 years ago that we drove through Reid’s fields in his old pickup truck to waters churning with post-larval shrimp (10,000 per pond) to check their progress. Because of their diet of flax and soybeans, among other organic proteins, the shrimp were iodide-free (safe even for some people with shellfish allergies). While the regular Gulf variety is known for bottom feeding, Reid could stop feeding his shrimp so that their digestive tracts—the “veins”—would have purged their icky contents by harvest time. Back at Reid’s Permian Sea Shrimp Store, his wife, Patsy, cooked while I tried the mature shellfish in every form: fried, in homemade tartar sauce, and sautéed. The taste was close to a sweet little lobster, sweeter even than the bay shrimp of the Carolinas that I’d grown to love during my residence in the South.
But in 2004, the organic star to which Reid had hitched his wagon was removed by the USDA’s National Organic Program. When I called him in 2005, he said he’d been told to use up his existing labels and stop claiming certification, since the USDA had never issued specific industry standards for organic seafood. Faced with competition from cheaper Asian imports flooding into the U.S. and Reid’s limited distribution, the business became too tough to sustain.
I resigned myself to the reality that I’d never get a taste of those sweet little desert decapods again.
Although the gentleman shrimp-rancher may be dancing with extinction, it turns out you can once again find those delicious desert crustaceans—albeit in vastly different settings. Companies like Desert Sweet Biofuels in Gila Bend, Arizona, have kept the outdoor shrimp-farming model alive, raising shrimp in the Sonoran Desert at the same time they grow algae for alternative fuel use. A thick layer of green slime atop its acres of shrimp vats will ultimately be pressed for oil and used as fuel.
But one company is single-handedly planning to turn its shrimp into rock stars on the Las Vegas Strip. Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp opened in July 2011, thereby laying claim to the title of southern Nevada’s first shrimp farm. Composed of a mysterious-looking white tent near I-15 and US 93, in the city of North Las Vegas, what Blue Oasis lacks in desert majesty and the romance of rehydrating ancient seabeds, it makes up for in science. That white tent, after all, isn’t dependent on any kind of environmental conditions. Rain, drought, heat, snow—it doesn’t matter; those shrimp will continue to reach adulthood. And if Blue Oasis CEO Scott McManus has his way, it won’t be long before the imported shellfish that tourists are currently eating on the Strip are replaced by his clean-living, local desert variety.
In fact, Blue Oasis, the aquaculture division of Ganix Biotechnologies Inc., has purpose-built its 36,000-square-foot indoor shrimp farm to meet the insatiable desire for shrimp on the Strip—estimated at 22 million pounds per year, a higher per capita rate of consumption than any other city in the world. About half the shrimp, McManus says, will be sold in Las Vegas; the rest will head out by truck to California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Eventually, the tent farms will go on a “massive rollout,” McManus says, with places like Dallas, Kansas City, and Reno in their crosshairs. But really, location has nothing to do with the success of the shrimp. “We could put the tents in Siberia,” he says.
These high-science tents are free of inconveniences—such as birds flying overhead, variously picking off and contaminating the crop—and their maintenance is tightly controlled. But in fact, shrimp raising in desert tents is not so different from its outdoor pond-ranching predecessors. These days, after pathogen-free Mexican white shrimp larvae arrive at the air-conditioned facility, they are placed in 44 carefully monitored tanks made from recycled shipping containers filled with treated water. A mix of algae and seafood proteins is fed to the shrimp, sustaining their hummingbird-like metabolisms up to 12 times a day. (Like Reid’s shrimp, these are also free of digestive material by the time they’re harvested.) After 120 days, they will be scooped off by net and shipped to local restaurants. The company expects to grow 450,000 pounds of shrimp per year at its pristine desert farm, all the while producing no wastewater and without the use of chemicals.
And while having the organic label stripped away may have destroyed old-school shrimp ranchers like Reid, McManus says that “sustainability” resonates more with consumers these days—which helps with marketing. It’s all about putting a “net protein gain back into the system,” he says. “While one pound of tuna takes 25 pounds of seafood to raise, for every pound of protein Blue Oasis puts into the system, we’re doubling the amount we get out.” Plus, that old USDA organic certification may come back within the year. And unlike almost any other Las Vegas–area business, Blue Oasis isn’t taxing an already stressed water system. The facility recycles all the water in its self-cleaning tanks, with evaporating water reclaimed through its air system. “We use less water here than the average home in Las Vegas,” McManus says.
By the time this article is published, Blue Oasis will have harvested its first crop, and Las Vegas restaurants are taking notice. Star chefs Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse and the Hard Rock Hotel are all on the list of potential customers. Among the benefits: They’ll be able to purchase the whole shrimp—head, shell, and all (alive and fresh)—unusual in an industry where chefs are used to blocks of frozen, peeled shrimp delivered from Texas or Asia.
But what will they taste like? McManus says they’ll be sweeter than their outdoor and traditional farm-raised predecessors. “Shrimp are scavengers,” he says. “They’re a product of their environment. These shrimp live the best possible day every day.”
That is, well, until the day you eat them.
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