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Ron Staha

 

On November 18, 2005, at the 7th International Shrimp Culture Symposium and Exhibition in Panama, I interviewed Ron Staha, owner of a shrimp hatchery in Panama and a long-term participant in shrimp farming in the Western Hemisphere.

 

Currently, Ron is living in Panama City and do a little shrimp farming consulting through his company, Mariculture Management Servicaes, S.A.

 

Shrimp News: Hi Ron, tell me a little about your educational background and your first steps into shrimp farming.

 

Ron Staha: I went to college at what is now called Texas State University in San Marcos.  Back then it was called Southwest Texas State, and it had a pretty good freshwater biology program.  Stanley Sissom was my major professor and he’s the one that guided me into aquaculture.  I graduated in 1970 with a double major in chemistry and biology.

 

Shrimp News: What was your first job?

 

Ron Staha: My first job was with the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS).  What an experience that was.  I had been up and down the Texas coast looking for work.  Someone told me about a state redfish lab at a place called Wells Point, near Palacios.  The guy who was running it was Bill More (currently a shrimp farming consultant and vice president of the Aquaculture Certification Council).  They were not hiring, but I was told to try NMFS in Galveston, Texas.  So, I went to Galveston and was interviewed by Ray Niblock.  He signed me on and told me to report to Corny Mock on Monday morning.  I walked in Monday morning and there was this bald-headed guy with his back to me sitting in front of a microscope.  Without ever looking up, he said, “Who in the f*!# are you?”  I said, “My name is Ron Staha.”  He said, “What the f*!# do you want?”  I said, “Mr. Niblock sent me over here to work with you.”  Then he said, “Well what the f*!# can you do.”  By this time, I was getting a little aggravated and said, “I can do any f*!#ing thing that you want me to.”  He looked up and smiled and after that, we had a great relationship.  He was quite a character.  I worked with him, George Griffin, head of the shrimp culture department, and Alice Murphy, head of the algae culture department, for about a year and a half.  It was great basic training.  There were a lot of good people there, including a young Ph.D. named Don Lightner (currently at the University of Arizona and a world expert on shrimp viruses).  We used to play dominoes together at lunchtime.

 

Shrimp News: What was your job?

 

Ron Staha: My main job was culturing algae.  George and Alice taught me how to prepare culture mediums and stock solutions and do pure and mass cultures.

 

Shrimp News: What kind of algae did you grow?

 

Ron Staha: Skeletonema, Thalassiosira and Tetraselmis.

 

Shrimp News: We don’t hear much about them today.  Do all shrimp hatcheries use Chaetoceros today?

 

Ron Staha: For the most part, yes, it’s a great food and easy to grow in mass culture.

 

Shrimp News: What was your next job?

 

Ron Staha: Well, unbeknownst to me, Bill More had left the Wells Point redfish project and taken a job with Ralston Purina in Florida.  In 1971, Dennis Zensen, then a VP for Purina’s New Ventures Management, Bill More and Yosuke Hirono came through Galveston on a head-hunting trip, and Yoshi offered me a job culturing algae at Purina’s new shrimp farming research facility in Crystal River, Florida.  It was still under construction when I arrived.  I jumped at the opportunity, which, by the way, doubled my salary from $400 to $800 a month.

 

Shrimp News: Who was working at the research facility when you arrived?

 

Ron Staha: The original crew was Bill More, Yoshi Hirono, Mel Mackey and a guy named Churchill Grimes, who didn’t last very long.

 

Shrimp News: Who were some of the people who came on board with Purina after you were hired?

 

Ron Staha: A number of good guys passed through the Crystal River facility: Harvey Persyn, Durwood Dugger, Ron Wulff, Padge Beasley, Joe Mountain and Hank Clifford, just to name a few.

 

Shrimp News: How long did you work in Crystal River?

 

Ron Staha: From 1971 to July 1974.  In a very short period of time our team did a lot of the basic groundwork that was needed to commercialize the shrimp farming process.  Yoshi and David Drennan, who started working for us in Panama in 1972, traveled throughout Central and South America looking for species thought to be suitable for farming.  They would source and spawn gravid females and ship the nauplii to us for rearing.  We would pick them up at the Tampa Airport and drive them back to the lab.  In Crystal River, we developed basic commercial hatchery techniques that are still used today, such as cheap methods for the mass culture of algae.  We defined feeding rates, combinations and schedules, instituted larval production protocols, identified species traits and developed shipping protocols for postlarvae.  We sent a lot of PLs to Brazil for testing in ponds.  Padge Beasley and his team would stock the few ponds we had with the different larvae we produced.  They would monitor the growth of the various species and test diets being developed for shrimp.

 

We weren’t even looking at Penaeus vannamei as a potential species.  As I recall, David Drennan shipped a few nauplii from a female he spawned in Panama to Crystal River, Florida, on a lark.  This was close to the end of our “growing season” in 1973.  We threw them in a rearing tank, and without much effort, we got tremendous survivals from them.  Padge stocked them outside in a little (1/4 acre) plastic-lined pond, and they grew like crazy in a very short period of time.  When we harvested that pond, we had 16+ gram animals.  They were beautiful, with a golden sheen.  Dollar signs flashed in everyone’s eyes, especially in those at corporate headquarters in St. Louis, and within a matter of months, Ralston Purina secured a site for a shrimp farm and hatchery in Panama.

 

I spent the entire month of October 1973 in Panama evaluating sites for the hatchery.  David had secured a little cardboard/fiberglass hut on the Smithsonian Institution’s pier in the Bay of Panama, where we did our initial water quality work.  Eventually, Agromarina de Panama was formed, and we built a hatchery on a site in Veracruz.

 

Shrimp News: When was the hatchery built?

 

Ron Staha: I moved to Panama in July 1974, and it was under construction when I arrived.  I was the last guy to leave Crystal River.  My job was to see that the hatchery and farm equipment was received, inventoried and shipped to Panama.  Padge Beasley, Yoshi Hirono, Melvin Mackey and Bill More, the other members of the original team, were already in Panama when I arrived.  David Drennan was based there as well.

 

Shrimp News: Who designed the hatchery?

 

Ron Staha: I designed it with a lot of input from Yoshi.  What we got was a combination of what I wanted and what Purina’s Central Engineering thought I needed.  The original hatchery had fifteen 2,000-liter tanks.  Man, we thought we were really cranking out a lot of postlarvae at three or four million per month.  And for the time, I guess we were.  But we had a lot of surprises.  We were forced to work almost exclusively with P. stylirostris because we just couldn’t find enough vannamei spawners, and there were months when we could not even find enough “stylies”.  That’s when we began to learn what seasonal effects were all about—no gravid females, poor water quality and high or low water temps.  In fact, seasonality is the main reason that maturation was rapidly developed, to get an even flow of larvae to the hatchery without depending on the ocean-caught animals.  Our original maturation systems were all designed for stylirostris.  Once we took the system “commercial”, we began to work with vannamei and found that the only thing missing was the nutritional package.

 

Shrimp News: How long did you manage the hatchery?

 

Ron Staha: In Crystal River, from 1973 to 1974.  In Panama from July 1974 to September 1981.

 

Shrimp News: Was the farm built at the same time?

 

Ron Staha: Yes, when I left, the farm had grown from a small pilot project to 600 or 700 hectares of big ponds.

 

Shrimp News: Was the hatchery able to keep the farm stocked with postlarvae?

 

Ron Staha: Yes, eventually.  But, at first there were many intervening variables that had to be addressed.  We were constantly facing and resolving new problems.  As mentioned, Panama has wet and dry seasons that dramatically affected hatchery production.  Wild broodstock production was sporadic.  Salinities and temperatures needed to be controlled.  During the dry season months of December through early May, we couldn’t kill shrimp.  We would get 60 and 70 percent survivals with vannamei.  During the rainy part of the year, from June to November, the quality and quantity of the wild broodstock deteriorated, and there was no vannamei to be found anywhere—just stylirostris.  We would have bad periods toward the end of the year.  That’s one of the reasons why you see the stocking strategies used in Panama today.  Everyone wants to stock a bunch in January and February when conditions are ideal, harvest in June and July, and then stock again so that they get two harvests per year.

 

Shrimp News: Who was the farm manager?

 

Ron Staha: Padge Beasley.  Glen Bieber and Frank Follett came in at some point, but I can’t remember exactly when.  David Flushing was the project engineer.  Bill More was the general manager of the whole farm.  I ran the larval production operations, hatchery and maturation until I left in the fall of 1981.

 

Shrimp News: Why did you leave?

 

Ron Staha: I was asked to leave.  It was during a big cutback by Purina.  At the same time, Purina also closed the Crystal River lab.  Harvey Persyn, Hank Clifford, Randy Aungst and a bunch of other good guys were let go as well.

 

Shrimp News: What did you do next?

 

Ron Staha: I became a shrimp hatchery consultant, opening a company called Mariculture Management Services, which is still operational today.  At the time, it was pretty easy to find clients.  Not too much was going on in Central America, but that’s when Ecuador’s industry was beginning its rapid expansion, so there was plenty of business.  Back then, I did not do general shrimp farming consulting; I only did hatcheries.

 

Shrimp News: How many hatcheries did you work on in the Western Hemisphere?

 

Ron Staha: I had my hand in 15 or 20, maybe more.  In 1982, I almost went to work for AquaLab (Alfonso Delfini) in Ecuador, but I was offered a job in Panama with a new company called CANASA, which is now CAMACO (see page ??).  I developed CAMACO’s first hatchery that included one of the first, if not the first, pure vannamei maturation systems.  Then I went off on my own again in 1986, working on other hatchery projects in Panama, Venezuela and Colombia.  In the late 1980s, I did some work in Honduras for Ricardo Maduro, who is now president of the country.  I also worked on hatcheries in Be lize and Costa Rica.

 

Shrimp News: When did you start your own hatchery?

 

Ron Staha: I started Pacific Larval Centre in 1990.  A good friend who wanted to get involved in shrimp farming asked me what I would do in Panama if I had the money.  I told him that I would build a facility to supply nauplii to the shrimp farming industry.  Six months later he came into my office and said, I’ve come up with $470,000, let’s grow some nauplii.  That’s how Pacific Larval Centre got started.  We produced our first nauplii in June 1991.  He’s been a great partner, a silent partner.  I feel bad about the rough times that we’ve been through recently, but he told me that he had no regrets.  We had some good times along the way.

 

We were never connected to a farm.  That’s why we did so well in the beginning.  We weren’t selling excess nauplii; we were selling every naup that we could produce.  The only other nauplii supplier back then was Agromarina de Panama, and it was selling its excess production for $1.50/1000, FOB Panama.  We came into the market at $0.90/1000 and could fill an order on demand.  This impressed people and we were swamped with orders.  We were amazed at the demand.  Our five-year goal was reached in two and a half years.

 

By the mid to late 1990s, however, the competition in the nauplii business really increased, and we began to lose customers to our better financed competition, which could offer financial terms that we just could not match.

 

In 1998, Granjas Marinas San Bernardo, a huge shrimp farm in Honduras, was our biggest customer.  We were selling 200+ million naups a month to their lab in Summerland Key.  Then, around August 25 or 26 of that year, all the nauplii started dying.  We had pumped creosote bilge tar into the hatchery during the night and it was killing everything.  The oily film coated everything and we had to close and clean all our pipes and tanks.  We couldn’t supply GMSB and our competition got that business.  We were closed for only two months, but it was a killer.  From that point on we saw our business start to fall off.  We still had sales, but business was no longer “booming”.

 

Things started to look up in 1999, though.  We had large orders from customers in Mexico, over 400 million nauplii for March alone, but that all ended in February 1999 when WSSV was reported in Panama.  The announcement came on the same day we stocked our brand new postlarvae lab for the first time.  Great timing!  Our export market quickly dried up and we had no farm of our own to supply.  In 2001 and 2002, we came close to having breakeven years, but we have not had a profitable year since whitespot hit.  Since 2002, it’s been a series of setbacks for us.  I’m now down to six people.  I laid off most of my staff last year and I’ll probably be down to just watchmen very shortly.  That hurts.  For the most part, we had some really fine people working for us.

 

Shrimp News: What will become of your hatchery?  Do you own it and the site?

 

Ron Staha: Yes, my partner and I own the land and the larval production facilities.  To build what we have in Punta Chame would probably cost $5 to $5.5 million today.  Someone will pick it up for a lot less than that.  My partner is 75, and I’m not getting any younger.  We are both eager to get some of our money back.  For the last two or three years, we’ve kept the hatchery going out of our own pockets.

 

The whole idea behind our operation was to develop our own disease-free lines.  We had biosecurity in place before anyone knew what biosecurity was all about.  We bought three pieces of land back in 1990.  The idea was to put maturation on one site, adult production at another site and postlarvae production on the third site—all with separate staffs and systems.  The only thing they had in common was the water that was treated at the central plant and then distributed to the three sites.  It’s a great hatchery.  Anyone who has been there will tell you it’s one of the best around—anywhere.  It can produce up to 400 million naups a month, 40 million postlarvae a month and 1,500 to 2,000 SPF adults per month.  Our lines are clean and free of all known viruses, including IHHN and have been for years.  The few PLs we have sold have done very well, especially in intensive farms, where they get fast, uniform growth at high densities.  The best production has been in excess of 30,000 pounds per hectare of 18 gram animals in 119 days.

 

Shrimp News: Has anyone placed a bid on the hatchery?

 

Ron Staha: A couple of people are interested, but I don’t have any firm offers yet, I just put it on the market.  Didn’t want to, but such is life in the tropics.

 

Shrimp News: What do you do next?

 

Ron Staha: I don’t know, probably go back to consulting.  After 33 years, I don’t want to leave the industry, I enjoy it too much, and I really enjoy sharing what I know.

 

Source: Ron Staha,  Interviewed by Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International in Panama City, Panama on.  November 18, 2005. Published on October 31, 2006.

 

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