At the Fourth Latin American Aquaculture Congress and Exhibition (Panama, October 2000), I interviewed Bill More, at the time vice president of operations at Agromarina de Panama, one of the oldest and most successful shrimp farms in the Western Hemisphere. Bill got started in shrimp farming in 1962. He is currently vice president of the Aquaculture Certification Council and a shrimp farming consultant.
A continuous flotilla of islands along the Texas coast creates a 500-mile-long inter-coastal waterway that’s interlaced with warm bays and fertile lagoons—the perfect nursery ground for juvenile shrimp. The breaks between the islands are called “passes”, and it’s through these passes that shrimp larvae, born in the open ocean, enter the nursery ground.
Shrimp News: How did you get started in shrimp farming?
Bill More: When I graduated from college in 1962, the State of Texas hired me as a marine biologist. One of my first responsibilities was to identify the shrimp larvae entering Texas bays through the island passes. The state needed the data to update shrimp fishing regulations. Not really knowing where to start, I went to Harry Cook (currently a shrimp farming consultant) at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in Galveston, Texas. At the time, the Fish and Wildlife Service was part of the Department of Interior. Later it moved to the Department of Commerce and was renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service.
One of my jobs, working in conjunction with biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service, was to collect shrimp larvae entering the passes and try to identify them by species. Since the species were difficult to identify accurately, the decision was made to grow the larvae and describe the various stages. Females of three penaeid species were spawned in the Galveston Lab, using a technique described by Fielder in the 1950s. Ray Wheeler, a biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service, raised some of them in a little lagoon next to the Galveston Lab. By observing the larvae as they passed through various life stages, the shrimp species were identified. This was all taking place from 1963 to 1965.
At the time, our interest was primarily in pink shrimp (Penaeus duorarum), brown shrimp (P. aztecus), and white shrimp (P. setiferus), the major species caught by commercial fishermen in Texas. We had trouble finding female white shrimp that had mated. We found females with eggs and females that had spawned, but we could not find females with the male spermatophore attached. Since the Fish and Wildlife Service only contracted boats to fish between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., we were probably heading back to port about the time the P. setiferus were mating. By the time we started fishing the next morning, the females had spawned and the spermatophores were gone.
In 1964 or 1965, we shipped some larvae to Jerry Broom who was working for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on Grand Terre Island, at a pilot mariculture station for oysters and shrimp. Other than work done in South Carolina in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Bob Lunz, Jerry was the first person to grow commercial quantities of shrimp in the Western Hemisphere (1966-67)!
At the time, there were no commercial shrimp feeds, so Jerry used catfish feed. It was not very efficient, but it was a start. Later on, when I began growing shrimp in Palacios, Texas (1968-69), we used a dry, extruded cat (not catfish) food that worked much better, but it floated. We mashed it to make it sink and got better results. The shrimp grew faster.
In 1968, Jerry Broom, David Drennan, and Eric Heald, under contract with United Fruit Company/Armour Company developed a shrimp farm on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, near Tulian. Initially, they worked with brown shrimp spawned at a marine laboratory set up by Dr. Claire Idyll at the University of Miami around 1967 or 1968.
Brown shrimp did not do well in ponds in Honduras. In 1968 or 1969, David Drennan went to Panama to look for new species. He brought back some P. occidentalis, a white shrimp that makes up 80% of the commercial catch on the Pacific Coast of Panama. Occidentalis is easy to spawn and, in the ocean, it grows very fast to a large size. In ponds, it proved it was not a good candidate for shrimp farming because of slow growth and low survival. Over the last 20 years, occidentalis has been looked at several times, but it is always the same story: low survivals and poor growth when stocked at commercial densities (more than eight postlarvae per square meter). If crowded, they stop growing.
Jerry Broom had some success growing occidentalis in Honduras—at low densities (less than five postlarvae per square meter). Nonetheless, in 1969, United Fruit and Armour pulled the plug on the project.
Meanwhile back in Texas, in 1967, the State of Texas decided to build a Marine Fisheries Station in Palacios, Texas. Some ponds were devoted to redfish and oyster culture and others to shrimp culture research. Ponds stocked with brown and pink shrimp grew very slowly but white shrimp (setiferus), collectedfrom the bay and grown in ponds produced biomass four times larger than anything produced from the pinks and browns, and they grew twice as fast. In 1968, we produced 800 pounds per acre of 12 to 14-gram animals in 120 days.
In 1969, Ralston Purina, already a producer of trout and catfish feeds, visited the Palacios facility because of its interest in marine fish feeds—and noticed the work we were doing with redfish and shrimp. Shortly after the visit, Purina hired me to head up a research and development team to explore the potential of farming shrimp commercially in the United States.
In 1970, Dennis Zensen and I (for Purina) negotiated a contract with Florida Power Corporation in Crystal River, Florida. A research facility, built in 1970, commenced with the idea of producing pink and brown shrimp for the bait market and then switching to white shrimp for human consumption.
In March 1971, Purina hired David Drennan and sent him to Panama to look for other species of shrimp because the only commercial candidate we had at that time was the Gulf white shrimp, P. setiferus. Yoshi Hirono, hired in 1970 to run the hatchery, had been working for Dr. W. Tack Yang at the University of Miami, where he lived and worked in a little laboratory on a very low budget. Bill MacGrath, a nutritionist at Ralston Purina, came on board in July 1971 to develop shrimp feeds. Later the same year, Padge Beasley was hired as growout manager; and Ron Staha, as hatchery manager. Already on board was Melvin McKey, as construction supervisor. In 1971, 15 raceway ponds were constructed (some of them a quarter-acre, others a half-acre) and stocked with native species of brown, pink and white shrimp, and imported white shrimp from Panama. Following completion of the facility, Harvey Persyn (currently a shrimp farming consultant), Durwood Dugger (also a shrimp farming consultant) and Ron Wulff (last report, raising snakes in Arizona) were hired. Ron had one of the greenest thumbs I had ever seen and was a natural at aquaculture. In 1972, William (Bill) MacGrath became Director of Research and Development in St. Louis, and I was Manager/Director of the research station in Crystal River. Bill left the company in about 1977 and had a long and successful career in shrimp farming in Ecuador and Honduras.
In 1972, David Drennan shipped a couple of P. vannamei spawns to Crystal River. The eggs hatched and two tanks were stocked with nauplii. We produced about 110,000 postlarvae and stocked them in quarter-acre ponds. Ninety days later, to our amazement, the equivalent of 4,000 pounds per acre of 14-17 gram shrimp were produced, without aeration! We really got excited, called in all the Ralston Purina honchos from St. Louis, and shared our results. Since the Crystal River pilot facility was the pet project of Purina’s Chairman Hal Dean, we really got a lot of attention. After taking a careful look at our results, Purina was ready to go with a commercial shrimp farm.
Since vannamei is a non-indigenous species, the State said there was no chance that it could be grown in Florida, so Purina turned to Latin America where it had feed mills and tuna processing plants. Mexico was eliminated because shrimp farming, at the time, was reserved for cooperatives sponsored by the government. We ended up in Brazil in 1972, where an agreement was negotiated with the University of Pernambuco in Recife to renovate some old ponds that had been used for snook culture. The ponds were on a penal colony island, just north of Recife. Using prison labor, twenty 1/10-acre ponds were constructed (dug by hand). David Drennan sourced P. schmitti and P. brasiliensis from Venezuela and sent them to Crystal River, where postlarvae were produced and shipped to Brazil. We worked with eight different species of peneaids: occidentalis, stylirostris, vannamei, brasiliensis, schmitti, aztecus, duorarum, and japonicus. The Brazilian team that went with me consisted of Yosuke Hirono, Padge Beasley and Melvin McKey.
In 1971, when I went into Brazil with Ralston Purina to farm shrimp, there were no shrimp farms in Central America. Ecuador and Brazil had a few extensive shrimp ponds, but no big semi-intensive farms.
In 1972, the Marifarms Group, working with Japanese technology and under the management of John Cheshire, started a shrimp farm in Panama City, Florida. It built a hatchery, fenced off an entire bay and began farming Penaeus setiferus, an indigenous white shrimp. Marifarms had a Japanese biologist named Y. Akamena, who trained Chris Howell, who has had a long career in shrimp farming and currently runs a hatchery in Malaysia. Marifarms was actually ranching shrimp. It stocked postlarvae in its huge bay and attempted to harvest them several months later.
The Japanese had always worked with P. japonicus; they had never worked with white shrimpand, consequently, did not have much luck with them. They didn’t understand setiferus’s breeding cycle. They didn’t know that they needed wild females with spermatophores attached. Harvey Persyn, currently a shrimp farming consultant, and David Drennan, currently a hatchery manager in the Dominica Republic, went up to Panama City to help Marifarms. They took them out on a boat and showed them how to catch gravid females in Apalachicola Bay. We helped them off and on during their run at shrimp farming, but then the environmentalists got after them and they abandoned the project because of substained losses. Shrimp fishermen also protested the fencing off of a bay that had previously been open for fishing.
Another significant event occurred in 1973, before we went into Panama with Agromarina de Panama. Jim Heerin (currently chairman and chief executive officer of Shrimp Culture, Inc., the management company for one of the largest shrimp farms in the world) and Don Sweat were running a turtle processing operation in Florida called Sea Farms. When turtle fishing was banned, they decided to get into shrimp farming. They set up a bunch of hatchery tanks in Key West and ran trials with aztecus and duorarum. These species turned out to be poor candidates for farming. So we formed a little joint venture with Sea Farms in 1972. We sourced gravid females in Panama and shipped half off to our facility in Crystal River and half to their hatchery in Key West. Later, Sea Farms developed successful shrimp farms in Honduras.
In 1975 or 1976, Dr. Harold Webber, a consultant, convinced a bunch of American investors to build a big shrimp farm in Costa Rica. Called Maricultura, it still operates today under a different name and ownership. Harold’s team of shrimp people included Billy Drummond, Eric Heald and Jerry Broom.
By the mid-1970s, there were three big semi-intensive shrimp farms in Central America: Sea Farms, Maricultura and our operation, Agromarina de Panama. Ecuador also got rolling about the same time, followed by Peru, but there were no shrimp farms in Venezuela or Colombia. Brazil was still fooling around with japonicus. When Harvey Persyn left Agromarina de Panama in 1981, he went to Brazil and built the first vannamei/stylirostris farm there.
When I arrived in Brazil in 1972, there was already a project in northeast Brazil, owned by a Dutch company, that produced salt, Artemia (brine shrimp)—and shrimp! They were stocking japonicus in large ponds and once a month, during the highest tide, they would open the gates and capture the shrimp as they migrated out of the pond. The managers would take what they wanted for their own use and sell the rest locally, probably no more than a few hundred pounds a year under the best of conditions. The amazing thing is that the japonicus were reproducing in the ponds.
While in Brazil, we evaluated eight species, once during the rainy season and once during the dry season. Vannamei did three times better than any other species. It grew faster and had higher survivals. After two years of research and development in Brazil, Purina decided to commercialize the business and requested a permit from the Brazilian government to import a non-indigenous species from the United States (Crystal River). The government denied the permit. Nicaragua was considered, but a contract could not be negotiated. In 1974, we found a home in Panama and negotiated a 4,000-hectare land concession and a twenty-year tax holiday.
In 1974, I moved to Panama as general manager and with a team of experts consisting of Yosuke Hirono, Padge Beasley, Ron Staha, Melvin McKey, David Drennan started Agromarina de Panama. Yosuke was in charge of research and development. He spent part of his time in the hatchery and part on the farm. Padge was in charge of the farm, and Ron was in charge of the hatchery in Veracruz. David Drennan managed our sourcing operations and Melvin McKey was the project engineer. Harvey Persyn was manager of Crystal River operations and William MacGrath was director of research and development in St. Louis.
David would go out every night, capture mated females, spawn them on the boat, hatch the eggs and bring the nauplii back to the hatchery. From 1974 to 1976, roughly eighty percent of Agromarina”s production was P. stylirostris because it was easier to source mated females of this species. Although Agromarina grew 800 to 1,200 pounds per acre of 18-20 gram animals, production of P. vannamei was better (2,000 pounds per acre).
When it became apparent that we could not sustain a year-round commercial operation using P. stylirostris, and with so few wild P. vannamei available (3% of the population), the decision was made to mature and mate wild P. vannamei at the hatchery! In 1976, Joe Mountain, who was working for us in Crystal River, came to Panama to work on shrimp maturation, and in 1977, we had a big breakthrough. We learned to produce all the P. stylirostris we needed by cutting off one of the female’s eyestalks (ablation). However, ablation did not work as well with P. vannamei because they were not getting the right diet. Once the nutritional and environmental requirements for maturing P. vannamei were satisfied, ablation worked and commercial quantities of good quality nauplii produced. In 1978, the commercial production of P. stylirostris was replaced with P. vannamei.
In 1981, Purina closed the research and development center in Crystal River, Florida, expanded farm operations in Panama, and began selling technology and consulting in other countries. I continued to consult with Agromarina while selling technology for Ralston Purina International. At that time, Purina had about 220 hectares of ponds. By 1986, they were up to 700 hectares. That is when Purina decided to sell the farm and many of its other operations in Latin America. Granada Corporation, of Houston, Texas, purchased Agromarina, and later, David Eller, one of Granada’s principal investors, purchased Agromarina from Granada. I continued to consult with Agromarina from 1986 to 1988 and returned as vice president of operations in 1989, at the request of the new owners. When WSSV hit in 1999, Agromarina was operating a 920-hectare farm and a hatchery that produced 40–50 million postlarvae per month.
When whitespot hit, in retrospect, a decision should have been made to minimize spending until whitespot was under control. Instead, the company continued to invest money ($2 million) to develop a super intensive culture system that could produce shrimp in the presence of whitespot and a $500,000 broodstock facility designed to produce a disease tolerant animal. The broodstock facility was state-of-the-art and produced around 3,000 to 6,000 broodstock a month from the survivors of repeated whitespot challenges. Unfortunately, when the bank sequestered Agromarina, the farm closed and the broodstock animals were lost.
In February 1999, Dr. Paul Frelier came to Panama to help a small farm that thought it had Taura virus. All its animals were dying. Paul, who had diagnosed whitespot at Harlingen Shrimp Farms in Texas in 1995, looked at the animals and immediately guessed that they had whitespot. Paul does not believe PCR tests are reliable for detecting whitespot. He ran some histological tests on the animals and they were positive for whitespot.
In March 1999, Drs. Flegel and Fegan from Thailand were in Panama for, ironically, a conference on how to keep whitespot out of Panama. Although whitespot was present on all of the farms checked, most shrimp were not dying from it. Not all the farms would let them into their facilities. Two or three weeks after the visit, mass mortalities hit 90% of the farms in Panama. At Agromarina, survivals dropped to 20 to 45%. With each succeeding crop, the survival rate continued to drop. During the 2000 dry season (January through April), survivals went back up to 20 to 25% again. When the rainy season began (May through December), survivals dropped back to 12 to 15%. Of the nine thousand hectares of shrimp ponds in Panama, five thousand of them are near Agromarina, and they are the farms that were hit the hardest. Farms that are having the best success are those with small ponds and intensive management. Over time, survivals have improved. In July 2001, they were over 40%.
Agromarina de Panama, S. A., ceased to operate as a company in January 2001 and the assets were passed to So T Chea (Captain Charlie’s Seafood) of Houston, Texas, at a public auction in April 2001. William R. More is no longer associated in any way with the company.