Barry Bowen and Belize Aquaculture Limited
Recollections of Robins McIntosh, Who Ran BAL for Five Years
The most famous shrimp farmer in the Western Hemisphere, Sir Barry Bowen (64), died in a plane crash on Friday, February 26, 2010. Bowen owned Belize Aquaculture, Ltd., an environmentally friendly, intensive shrimp farm in Belize, Central America. Robins McIntosh, currently a Senior Vice President at Charoen Pokphand Foods Public Co., Ltd., in Thailand, one of the largest shrimp farming ventures in the world, managed Belize Aquaculture for its first five years. When the farm began commercial operations in 1997, McIntosh and Bowen ushered in a whole new way of farming shrimp.
At the World Aquaculture Society Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA (March 1-3, 2011), Robins McIntosh gave a presentation on Barry Bowen’s contributions to the development of world shrimp farming. [Editor: Unfortunately, I was not able to attend McIntosh’s presentation, but on the last day of the conference, an hour before my departure, I bumped into him, and he showed me his slides, while I recorded his comments. This report is based on that interaction. I moved topics around a bit and did not include everything, so this report will differ somewhat from his formal presentation.]
Barry Bowen Re-thinks Shrimp Farming Technology
Barry Bowen began his investigation of shrimp farming in 1990, but shortly thereafter, the Taura virus began its devastating march through the shrimp farming industry in the Western Hemisphere. Farms everywhere failed. Suddenly shrimp farming no longer looked like a good investment. No one wanted to put money on the line for anything so risky. In 1994, however, Barry began to re-think the current shrimp farming technology, and through that re-think, he came up with the Belize Aquaculture Limited concept.
Barry set his shrimp farming standards very high. He wanted to develop a system that Belize would be proud of, a system that was environmentally friendly, a system that was above the hurricane flood plain, and a system that was biosecure. Above all, with diseases ravaging shrimp farms worldwide, he wanted a system that would help bring diseases under control.
Shrimp farming in the Western Hemisphere got started in large, uncontrollable ponds. High water exchange, incorrect feeding regimes and whimsical plankton interfered with keeping the ponds under control. The farmer would measure all the water quality variables—and then “the pond” would tell him what to do.
Many months out of the year those big old ponds were out of production because of pond maintenance—like drying and plowing the pond bottom. Another thing that took a lot of time was measuring and recording all the water quality variables, trying to determine what the algae were doing, attempting to predict the size of crop from the ponds subtle messages. Always worrying! Is the pond going to crash? Is it going to do this? Is it going to do that? The farmer had no control over the situation; he just measured this and that so that he could guess what was going on in the pond.
A couple of scientific papers and a trip to the Waddell Mariculture Laboratory in South Carolina, USA, initiated Bowen’s re-thinking of the big pond strategy. Waddell was doing intensive shrimp farming in small raceways with no water exchange. The Waddell researchers gave Barry a paper (reference below) that described successful, intensive, zero-exchange systems—exactly what he wanted for Belize. He left Waddell with the impression that intensive shrimp farming was possible in small controlled ponds, where strict biosecurity measures could be put in place to control disease. Smaller, intensive ponds also meant better land use and much less pumping, making it easier to filter out competitor species and control diseases. These farms could be placed on higher ground, above the hurricane flood zone. Barry also knew about the use of specific pathogen free (SPF) stocks to increase biosecurity.
After his big re-think of shrimp farming, Barry came to the conclusion that shrimp farming could work in Belize and that he could build a shrimp farm that the country would be proud of. He thought his technology would be competitive with the big earthen ponds elsewhere in Latin America.
The paper (reference below) that got me interested in using bioflocs to maintain water quality was presented at a World Aquaculture Society meeting in the early 1980s by French researchers from New Caledonia. It described a biofloc system they developed in Tahiti in the 1970s for high-intensity shrimp culture. The system used microbial processes to clean the water, not water exchange. The Waddell and New Caledonia papers were the two most influential papers in getting Belize Aquaculture started. Bioflocs led me to believe that maybe some of Barry’s goals were achievable.
We used to call these floc systems “heterotrophic”, but when Michelle Burford from CSIRO in Australia came to Belize and studied our system, she said it was “mixotrophic”, not heterotrophic. It did have heterotrophic bacteria, but it also had nitrifying bacteria, phytoplankton, protozoa and zooplankton. She said to call it heterotrophic was wrong, it really was a mixotrophic system because it had lots of nitrofiers in it.
At Belize Aquaculture, we were stoking the system with carbon and got too much floc, which turned into too much sludge and caused a disposal problem. The farm was almost completely heterotrophic. It was the wrong concept. The floc was too thick. If we did a simple settling, there was a tremendous improvement in water quality, including higher oxygen levels, and when we looked at ammonia, nitrate and phosphorus levels, we saw tremendous reductions after seven days in the settling pond. Basically, seven days of settling improved the water so much that it could be pumped right back into the shrimp ponds. The phosphorus settled out with the sludge and was absorbed into the bottom soils.
Lowering the Protein Levels in Shrimp Feed
Waddell researchers also published a paper (reference below) that showed the effect of two protein levels and two feeding rates in a closed system. When the feeding rates remained constant, the lower protein diet performed as well as the higher protein diet. So why use expensive shrimp feed when you were just feeding the system and not the animals. That’s when we came up with the grain pellet concept. We used two diets, cheap grain pellets and shrimp feeds. We started with a very high load of the cheap grain and a little bit of shrimp feed, and then increased the shrimp feed proportion as the biomass of the shrimp increased. The commercial shrimp feed had 27% protein; the grain mix, 17%, so the average protein in our feeds averaged out to about 21%. Other than the feed, we did not use any other carbon source.
I wanted to encourage microbes that would break down complex carbohydrates and proteins. If I fed them simple carbohydrates, like molasses, I might get microbes that could not attack the complex compounds in shrimp feed. So instead of using molasses as a carbon source, I used a more complex grain feed that was more likely to encourage bacterial populations that would be effective in breaking down complex molecules.
The farm was developed in stages. In 1997, the pilot farm had reservoirs, settling ponds and growout ponds of various sizes (to test the effect of pond size on production). It had the goal of producing 11 metric tons per hectare per crop, with 2.5 crops per year.
We had no idea what was going to happen with the first crop. The first thing I noticed, on about day ten, one of the ponds looked like a washing machine overflowing with suds. That scared me. I immediately emailed Stephen Hopkins at Waddell asking, “What’s going on? This looks horrible. I’m losing sleep over this.” He responded, “Calm down, calm down. It will go away.” Three days later it went away. The pond changed color from green to brown, and we had floc. We were monitoring the nitrogen in the system. It would spike up and then plummet down, repeating this cycle with decreasing peaks and valleys until the system eventually became stable. Low and behold, the system worked.
With the algal-based system I had used in Guatemala, the best we ever did was six tons per hectare. The first harvest in Belize was 13 tons per hectare. And it wasn’t a fluke. During the time I managed the farm, we averaged 15 tons per hectare per crop. There were some down times, but once we figured everything out, the system performed consistently with only minor, seasonal adjustments.
Other Contributions of Belize Aquaculture Limited
Controlled Ponds: We called the ponds in Belize “controlled ponds”, not intensive ponds, because we were finally able to tell the pond what to do, not let the pond tell us what to do. We were getting uniform-size shrimp in all our harvests, something I had never seen in my first six years of shrimp farming in the Americas.
Filtration: In 1999, Belize Aquaculture was the first shrimp farm to use 200-micron filter bags to filter all the water that came onto the farm. You just can’t do that with big ponds and high-volume pumps. But when you’re dealing with reduced water volumes, you can afford to filter way down and exclude competitor and disease-carrying species.
Genetics: High Health Aquaculture, a broodstock company in Hawaii, provided us with some of its first Taura resistant stocks, and when we did mass selections from those stocks, we improved them even more. So, in my mind, genetics played an important role in advancing the Belize Aquaculture technology.
In Thailand, we followed a similar genetic plan, and in the first year achieved dramatic results with SPF broodstock. When we started, it took 130 days to produce 25-gram animals in controlled raceways. Last year, it took just 70 days, which means more crops per year.
In Thailand today, many farms have reservoirs and settling ponds that take up about 30% of the farm. They recycle most of their water, and little or no water is released into the environment. Every couple of years, farmers must bulldoze the sludge out of the pond. When it dries, it’s used to build roads.
Biosecurity: Belize Aquaculture was the first biosecure farm in Latin America, and probably the world. Nobody thought about biosecurity back in the mid-1990s. But Barry did. We used SPF stock, we used closed systems, and we disinfected and filtered. Today, in Thailand, we’ve taken that to a higher level; biosecurity is now at the center of the Thai shrimp farming strategy. We’re excluding birds and crabs, using recycle systems and SPF animals.
In Thailand, we have small bioflocs in our systems, but we’ve moved beyond the Belize Aquaculture system. We’re using higher-protein feeds, which means more nitrogen and a nitrifying ecology. You don’t get the sludge-producing heterotrophic flocs; you get smaller nitrifers that accomplish the same thing with the benefit of a cleaner system that grows more shrimp.
Pond Liners: Pond liners were becoming less and less popular for aquaculture when we started using them in 1997. Now, they are becoming increasingly popular in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Even a lot of the old ponds have been lined. The first thing a farmer does after a couple of crops is to buy liners because liners mean more profits.
What If Barry Bowen Had Listened to the Experts?
Barry told one expert that he wanted to produce 10,000 pounds per acre per crop, and that expert said, “Are you kidding!” That was me. I did everything I could to change his mind. I told him that nobody in the world on a site like his had ever averaged 10,000 pounds per acre per crop. Other well-known experts said you can’t grow shrimp in lined ponds. “You have to have soil.” Another said, “You can’t use zero water exchange in intensive culture. You have to increase water exchange. It’s the only way to go.”
When we noticed different performance among the different strains of Penaeus vannamei, a consultant told us not to fall for the Oceanic Institute “propaganda” on genetics. He said OI’s program was “B.S.” Today, Oceanic Institute’s genetically improved vannamei broodstock is used all over Asia.
When I told an owner of one of the largest shrimp farms in Ecuador what we planned to do in Belize, he said: “Don’t do it; you can’t do it. You’ve got to have wild broodstock. Without wild broodstock and wild postlarvae, you can’t do shrimp farming. Don’t try it.”
In 2001, Asia began adopting the BAL technologies, and you can see from the chart what happened: “An explosion of farmed shrimp.”
So, where would shrimp farming have been today if Barry Bowen had listened to the experts?
Information: Robins McIntosh, Senior Vice President, Charoen Pokphand Foods Public Co., C.P. Tower 27th Floor, 313 Silom Road, Bangrak Bangkok, 10500, Thailand (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sources: 1. Robins McIntosh. Belize Aquaculture, Ltd.: A Retrospective Look at the Project That Changed the Shrimp Culture Industry. World Aquaculture Meeting. New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. March 3, 2011. 2. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International, April 8, 2011.
References: 1. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society. Effect of Water Exchange Rate on Production, Water Quality, Effluent Characteristics and Nitrogen Budgets of Intensive Shrimp Ponds. J. Stephen Hopkins, Richard D. Hamilton II, Paul A. Sandifer, Craig L. Browdy and Alvin D. Stokes (Waddell Mariculture Centre, P.O. Box 809, Bluffton, South Carolina 29910, USA). Volume 24, Number 3, September 1993.
2. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society. Review of Ten Years of Experimental Penaeid Shrimp Culture in Tahiti and new Caledonia (South Pacific). Aquacop (Centre Oceanologique de Pacifique, IFREMER, P.O. Box 7004, Taravao 98791, Tahiti, Polynesie Francaise). Volume 15, Pages 71-91, 1984.
3. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society. Effect of Two Feed Protein Levels and Two Feed Rate, Stocking Density Combinations on Water Quality and Production in Intensive Shrimp Ponds Operated Without Water Exchange. J.S. Hopkins, C.L. Browdy, P.A. Sandifer and A.D. Stokes (Waddell Mariculture Centre, P.O. Box 809, Bluffton, South Carolina 29910, USA). Volume 26, Number 5, Pages 93-97. 1995.
Belize Aquaculture’s Demise Poses Questions about the Future of Biofloc Technology
A Discussion from the Shrimp List
On July 14, 2011, Mary Ellen Burris, Senior Vice President of Consumer Affairs at Wegmans markets, a privately held, family-owned supermarket chain in the USA that bought its shrimp from Belize Aquaculture, blogged:
“Belize Aquaculture, the source of our prized Belize shrimp, has been closed. In 2010, Sir Barry Bowen, the owner, was killed in a tragic plane crash. Since then, the various businesses making up Bowen and Bowen, Ltd., have been evaluated. It was decided that Belize Aquaculture (BAL) would be closed.”
The demise of Belize Aquaculure, the first big biofloc shrimp farm in the world, sparked a long discussion on the Shrimp List, a mailing list for shrimp farmers, about the economics and sustainability of biofloc technology. For a copy of the full discussion, click here.
For background information on the Wegmans/Belize Aquaculture relationship, click here.
For background information on biofloc technology, click here.