Visit and Interview—October 21 and 22, 2013
Aonori Aquafarms, located in San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico, has developed a unique way to farm shrimp. It grows Pacific brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus californiensis), a cool water species, in ponds covered with a mat of macroalgae (Ulva clathrata). The shrimp feed on the algae and the small organisms that live in it, and the algae recycles shrimp waste products and produces oxygen! As a result, Aonori’s feeding costs are 70% lower than those of traditional shrimp farms, and it does not need to invest in expensive aeration systems. The algae is harvested as a high-value crop (probably more valuable than the shrimp, but more about that below) to produce a long list of products for human consumption and possibly some for consumption by farm animals. Currently, a pilot project, Aonori has 16 small ponds (about three hectares), a hatchery and a broodstock facility with second-generation broodstock.
Aonori decided to work with F. californiensis because it’s a cool water species that’s native to the San Quintin area and because of research done at Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste (CIBNOR) in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, that shows Caulerpa, a green algae, and brown shrimp grow well together. F. californiensis and Aonori’s Ulva clathrata both thrive at temperatures from 20 to 30 degrees centigrade and can therefore be grown for most of the year in San Quintin, which has cooler water temperatures than most of Latin America. CIBNOR’s Dr. Francisco Magallón provides scientific support for Aonori’s shrimp breeding program.
In the wild, californiensis, an Eastern Pacific species ranging from California to northern Peru, lives at depths of 15 to 100 meters. It prefers mud or sandy/mud bottoms and grows to about 210 millimeters (8.3 inches). In some years, it constitutes three quarters of the Mexican Pacific catch. Japanese consumers like it for its bright color when cooked. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador all have significant landings of californiensis.
On October 21-22, 2013, I visited Aonori Aquafarms and interviewed the management team consisting of Armando Leon, President and Chief Executive Officer; Benjamin Moll, Chief Scientific Officer; and Alberto Peña Rodriguez, Director of Research and Development. Farm Manager Gonzalo Valenzuela Santini also participated in most of our discussions.
For two full days, we chatted about shrimp farming and the Aonori concept. The visit was punctuated by two special events. After dark on the first day, we went out to the ponds with flashlights to observe the shrimp. Because the ponds are covered with a mat of algae that blocks out the sun and constantly absorbs shrimp wastes, the water contains less microalgae than traditional shrimp ponds and therefore is much clearer. Around the edges of the macroalgae, you can see right to the bottom of the ponds. Brown shrimp, more active at night than during the day, could be seen everywhere on the bottom of the ponds as they scurried about in the Ulva, which also grows on the bottom of the pond. In pond 16, which had the clearest water, it looked to me like there were ten to twenty harvest-size animals in every square meter. Very peaceful and unaffected by our flashlights, their eyes lit up like little red headlights. They interacted with each other, but there was no fighting or aggressiveness.
The next day, at about ten in the morning, I got into pond 16 with snorkel and mask. What a great experience, but at first I couldn’t find any shrimp. During the day, brown shrimp literally “veg-out”, hiding under the Ulva on the bottom of the pond, where they appear to be resting or sleeping. Once I kicked the Ulva around a little bit, however, they were everywhere, but not nearly as active as they were the night before. I was even able to reach out and pick one up. In the picture, I had surfaced and shouted “Shrimp!” to let everyone know that I had finally found some shrimp.
The Management Team
Armando Leon, President and Chief Executive Officer, was born in Mexico City in 1949 and raised in the state of Sonora. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the National Autonumus University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City and his MBA from National University in San Diego, California, USA. He then went back to Mexico City and worked for Banamex for 10 years. After that, he worked for five years in cross-border produce distribution and then five years manufacturing goods for sale in the United States. In 1996, he started two companies, one concentrating on power electronics and the other on algae culture. In 1997, with Dr. Benjamin Moll (below) he began trials with algae culture in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Baja California that eventually led to the formation of Aonori Aquafarms.
Dr. Benjamin Moll was born in 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, USA. He got his undergraduate degree at Stanford University and his Ph.D. in plant physiology at the University of California/Berkley. After graduation, he worked for a genetic engineering company, a start-up called Advanced Genetic Sciences, later purchased by another company, which changed its name to DNA Plant Technology. There he worked on the physiology of photosynthesis, equipment design and the development of algal culture techniques. At DNA Plant Technology, while looking for a highly productive seaweed, he discovered that Ulva clathrata was a very nutritious species that was adaptable to aquaculture. He’s Aonori Aquafarms’ Chief Scientific Officer.
Dr. Alberto Peña Rodriguez was born in the state of Durango in central Mexico. He got his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in biotechnology at Nuevo Leon Autonomous University in Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon. His contact with Aonori Aquafarms began in 2007 when he was working on his Ph.D. under Dr. Elizabeth Cruz. It was his research that first showed that Ulva clathrata could provide a large fraction of the nutritional needs of white shrimp. In 2011, he went to work for Aonori as Innovation and Product Development Manager. He’s in charge of broodstock and postlarvae production, research and innovation, and new product development.
Gonzalo Valenzuela Santini was born in Navojoa Sonora, Mexico, in 1968 and graduated as a Biochemical Engineer from Monterrey Technological Institute, Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico. He joined Aonori Aquafams in June 2011. As Farm Manager, he plays an important role in the day-to-day running of the company. Before joining Aonori, he owned a shrimp farm in Sonora, Mexico, that was wiped out by whitespot. He has been farming shrimp for ten years.
Regina Elizondo was born in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, in 1983. She is a Ph.D. candidate in virology at the National Autonumus University of Mexico in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. She joined Aonori Aquafarms in June 2012 and is Quality Assurance Manger in charge of the microbiology of Ulva culture and all phases of the co-culture process with shrimp.
Shrimp News: Armando, in 2012, how did you market your first shrimp crop?
Armando Leon: We sold our 2012 crop to Safeway, the second largest supermarket chain in the United States, and this year, we expect to sell to Safeway again. We’re forecasting a harvest of about eight metric tons.
Shrimp News: As you know, shrimp prices have been rising dramatically lately. Do you have any idea how much you’re going to be getting for your shrimp this year?
Armando Leon: We are negotiating the price based on the price of wild caught Mexican brown shrimp.
Shrimp News: Ben, what role does the macroalgae, Ulva clathrata, play in the company’s plans?
Benjamin Moll: We have not sold any Ulva commercially, but we expect to be able to do that very soon—by January 2014! As you saw yesterday, we’re in the process of building our own processing plant for drying the algae. We expect to develop a whole line of high-value products from the Ulva.
Shrimp News: Alberto, how’s the 2013 crop of shrimp coming along; when do you plan to harvest it; and where will you sell it?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: We plan to begin the harvest in the middle of November. We expect to get between 3.5 and 4.0 metric tons per hectare. That’s a significant increase over our first crop in 2012 of about 2.5 tons per hectare. The growth rate per week has gone up 15%, which we think is attributable to the fact that we are working with second-generation domesticated shrimp.
Shrimp News: You mentioned that you were looking at some new critters to add to the pond that the shrimp could feed on. What are some of them?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: We want to introduce some species that are native to San Quintin Bay, where we capture our broodstock. We are looking at rotifers, nematodes and amphipods as potential candidates, but already, we use 70% less commercial feed in our ponds than traditional shrimp farms because our shrimp feed on the mat of Ulva and the organisms that live in it. We have already done some lab experiments with amphipods and hope to begin introducing them to our ponds over the next couple of years.
Shrimp News: Ben, at breakfast today, you mentioned other animals that could be polycultured with the shrimp. Specifically, you mentioned mollusks—scallops. Please elaborate on that?
Benjamin Moll: I’m very interested in increasing the revenue per pond, and one way of doing that is by introducing another marketable species that does not compete with the existing crops of shrimp and algae. Filter feeders—like mollusks—are obvious candidates. We haven’t run any trials on that yet. It’s more of a long-term plan. We’re still a little company, and we have our hands full right now.
Shrimp News: Armando, what are your plans for 2014? How do you plan to increase production?
Armando Leon: Right now, we have sixteen 1,750m2 ponds, about three hectares. In 2014, we plan to add 14 more hectares. The production from them should allow us to cover all our costs and get us to the breakeven point in two years. We will continue with the domestication of our brown shrimp and work on their genetics. We’re going to expand our shrimp hatchery and bring in more wild-caught shrimp to add to the genetic diversity of our broodstock. We’re going to cover two of our ponds with greenhouses and then test our system with bioflocs so we can continue to grow shrimp during the cold months. Right now, we don’t get good growth rates until May. With greenhouses and bioflocs, we’ll be able to stock juveniles in the greenhouses in February and get a three-month head start on our growout cycle.
After that, we plan to expand to 50 hectares, which should make us a profitable commercial operation, producing about 200 tons of shrimp and about 400 tons of Ulva products, resulting in sales of around $14 million.
Shrimp News: Ben, tell me a little more about the processing plant for Ulva that you are building and about some of the Ulva products that you hope to develop?
Benjamin Moll: With the plant we’re building on site right now, we’ll be able to dry and mill the algae from the ponds and produce a human-food-grade algal meal. Our first product will be milled algal powder that can be sold as an ingredient in other products, like tortillas. We can also sell it as is as a nutritious salt substitute and flavoring agent. Eventually, we want to produce seaweed snacks, like those that you are beginning to see in major grocery stores in the United States. We also plan to produce algal sheets that are used to wrap sushi rolls. For tortillas and tortilla chips, we plan to work with traditional tortilla manufacturers. Ulva can greatly improve the nutritional benefits of many foods.
In Mexico, and throughout Latin America, there are huge numbers of people that depend on tortillas as their number one source of nutrition. When you add Ulva meal to tortillas, you improve their protein, mineral (iron) and vitamin (vitamin A) content. Ulva is also a very good source of soluble fiber and can reduce the glycemic index of tortillas, a benefit to people with high blood sugar levels and diabetes.
Shrimp News: Could the Ulva meal be used directly in shrimp feeds?
Benjamin Moll: We are looking at that in collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Cruz at Nuevo Leon Autonomous University. There do appear to be some benefits in incorporating Ulva in shrimp feeds in terms of reducing disease risks as well as improving feed conversion ratios. Research still needs to be done on how to use it in shrimp feeds and other animal diets. Ulva has antiviral and antibacterial activities that impact disease risks, not just in shrimp, but also in other animals and humans.
Shrimp News: Alberto, Aonori has been working on domesticating wild broodstock for a couple of years. Have you seen any improvements yet?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: We have maintained them in captivity; we have bred them; and we are no longer dependent on wild broodstock. CIBNOR (Norwest Biological Research Biological Research Center in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico) is helping us with our breeding program. The productivity of our captive female broodstock is very good. We are getting up to a half million nauplii per female per spawn, and, on occasion, we’ve produced up to 800,000 naups from one female’s spawn.
Shrimp News: I noticed that all your female shrimp are much larger than the males. What is the potential of all-female production?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: When our juveniles reach ten grams, the females start to grow more rapidly than the males. By the time the males reach 20 grams, many of the females are already 30 grams. We are closely following the research coming out of Australia (CSIRO) on producing all-female triploid shrimp. If we were able to produce all-female triploid postlarvae, it would greatly increase our production.
Shrimp News: Have you seen any sign of whitespot virus or any other viruses on the farm?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: No, we test for viruses all the time, but we have never seen any sign of disease. Fortunately, we are in an isolated location, hundreds of kilometers away from any other shrimp farms, and our water temperature is below the tolerance level of whitespot. We, of course, have Vibrio bacteria in our ponds, but we have never seen any disease as a result of its presence. Our shrimp are happy and lead healthy, low-stress, high-quality lives.
Shrimp News: Some shrimp must die in the ponds. What causes those mortalities?
Alberto Peña Rodriguez: We have a very good survival rate, 85%. Less than one percent of our shrimp die every week. When shrimp molt, they may be attacked and eaten by the other shrimp, but they are not dying because of disease. In fact, we never even see dead shrimp in the ponds.
Shrimp News: Armando, how do you manage your broodstock program?
Armando Leon: We have been working with Drs. Ricardo Perez and Francisco Magallón at CIBNOR since 2009, and they have developed the technology for the development and breeding of our brown shrimp. Consequently, we are the only farm in the world that’s breeding and producing postlarvae from brown shrimp. We are going to continue working with them to improve our line. We have received a $250,000 grant from the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), the agency for the development of science and technology in Mexico, to continue that program.
Shrimp News: Assuming that your expansion over the next couple of years is successful, is there enough land in the San Quintin Valley for a major expansion?
Armando Leon: Yes, there are 10,000 to 15,000 hectares in the valley that are suitable for the development of our technology. The land is flat, accessible and adjacent to the ocean, but not suitable for traditional agriculture because of the shortage of freshwater.
Shrimp News: How do you plan to finance your expansion?
Shrimp News: We’re in the process of raising capital $4 million dollars right now from private investors and trying to raise a similar amount from an international funding institution. We have a lot of support from the Mexican Government because of the benefits we can bring to the region and because we have the capability to increase the nutritional quality of the country’s food staple—the tortilla. Over the next couple of years, we intend to prove that we can make a profit from what we are doing. Once we accomplish that, we don’t expect to have any problems raising money for a huge expansion. We plan to sell shares to the public at that stage.
Macroalgae Culture at Aonori Aquafarms
The management team at Aonori Aquafarms thinks the culture of macroalgae (Ulva clathrata) is going to be a bigger moneymaker than the shrimp! Dr. Benjamin Moll, Aonori’s chief scientific officer, explains why in a paper titled Ulva as an Element of Human Nutrition. Following are some excerpts from that paper:
Of the algae that are appropriate for use in human foods, Ulva is one of the best. It’s a good source of minerals, vitamins, soluble fiber, plant pigments, plant sterols, cysteinolic acid, and in larger quantities, it can be a valuable source of protein. Many of the virtues of Ulva overlap those of fruits and vegetables, but Ulva is a much richer source of key functional components like soluble fiber. Ulva has clear benefits for people with diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity.
Diabetes: Soluble fiber can reduce the glycemic index. As a result diets high in soluble fiber give better outcomes for people with diabetes and also prevent the development of diabetes. Soluble fiber levels are high in Ulva, from 20 to 40% of dry weight. Ulva is also a good source of magnesium, which aids in diabetes prevention. Studies of the effect of soluble fiber on glycemic index suggest that total soluble fiber in the 5 to 8% range will result in substantial reduction of glycemic index. Using 5% Ulva meal in corn tortillas, for example, raises the soluble fiber level from a little below 4% to about 6%. For reducing the glycemic index in tortillas, a good target inclusion rate is 5 to 10% Ulva meal.
Cholesterol: Elevated low-density cholesterol levels are a risk factor for heart disease. The fact that soluble fiber can reduce serum cholesterol levels in humans is well established. Ulvan, the soluble fiber in Ulva, is one of the most effective polysaccharides for cholesterol reduction. Clinically, significant reduction in cholesterol requires several grams of soluble fiber intake daily. The recommended intake is five grams of soluble fiber a day, but higher levels are desirable for cholesterol reduction. If Ulva were the sole source of soluble fiber (which it isn’t), daily intake should be at least 12.5 grams. An individual would need to consume about 125 grams dry weight of 10% Ulva supplemented tortillas or similar functional foods to meet that target. A combination of Ulva supplemented tortillas and Ulva supplemented salsa could easily meet the soluble fiber intake goal.
Ulva, like many algaes, has high levels of plant sterols. Sterols also reduce low-density cholesterol levels. Sterols are chemically related to cholesterol and apparently act by altering or preventing cholesterol esterification and uptake. About two grams of plant sterols per day are required for effective serum cholesterol reduction. Ulva lipid levels are low, but a large fraction of the neutral lipid in Ulva consists of sterols so total sterol content may be as high as 1% of dry weight. 200 grams dry weight of Ulva is more than most people will consume, so sterols from Ulva should be viewed as a complement to other cholesterol reduction strategies, not a complete solution.
Obesity: Ulva can affect fat accumulation. This is probably due, at least in part, to reduced glycemic index of foods containing Ulva, since reduced glycemic index contributes to weight control. Fat metabolism, however, is influenced by the presence in the diet of certain non-protein amino acids that are used in the synthesis of bile acids. In particular, cysteinolic acid can substitute for taurine. The presence of a substantial amount of cysteinolic acid in the diet clearly affects fat metabolism in animal studies and is believed to contribute substantially to the anti-obesity effect of Ulva. At two percent of the total diet in rats, Ulva substantially reduced fat accumulation, and presumably the same level is effective in humans. This is about the same level of supplementation required for glycemic index reduction and cholesterol reduction, so the same foods should give all three benefits simultaneously.
Vitamin A and Iron: Ulva is an excellent source of both of these nutrients, and is palatable as an ingredient at an inclusion rate of 7.5%.
Information: Armando Leon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Benjamin Moll (email@example.com), Aonori Aquafarms, Inc., 8684 Avenida de la Fuente, Suite 11, San Diego, California, USA 92154 (phone 1-619-785-3905, cell 1-408-439-4752, Skype: ArmandoALeon, in Mexico 52-664-687-4656, webpage http://www.aonori-aquafarms.com/home).
Shrimp News: I paid my transportation costs from San Francisco to San Diego and back, and Aonori Aquafarms picked up all my expenses for the two days in Mexico. Armando Leon piloted the Piper Cherokee 300, a six seater, to the farm and back, which was especially advantageous because on the way into San Quintin, we were able to fly low over the San Quintin Valley and check out the vast area that is available for shrimp farming along the coast.
Sources: 1. Interview by Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International. Aonori Aquafarms, San Quintin, Mexico, October 22, 2013. 2. Ulva as an Element of Human Nutrition, Benjamin Moll, Ph.D., January 27, 2013. 3. Photographs. Aonori Aquafarms. 4. An Illustrated Guide to the Shrimp of the World. Ian Dore and Claus Frimodt. Osprey Books, Huntington New York. 1987.