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Dr. George Chamberlain

Leading Responsible Aquaculture Forward Around the World


At the World Aquaculture Society Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, USA (February 21-25, 2013), I interviewed Dr. George Chamberlain, former president of the World Aquaculture Society, current president of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, and managing partner of an aquaculture technology company called iAqua.  Dr. Chamberlain, whose career bridges research, production, and sustainability, has a long pedigree of accomplishments in world aquaculture:


He received his MS and Ph.D. degrees in aquaculture from Texas A&M University.  In 1990, he joined Ralston Purina Company, where he directed Purina’s aquaculture feed program in the Americas, Europe and Asia.  In 1998, he moved to Monsanto where he directed a program on genetically selected marine shrimp, soy-based feeds and sustainable pond systems for marine shrimp.  In 1999, he and Ken Morrison, former owner of one of the biggest shrimp farming operations in Ecuador, developed Black Tiger Aquaculture, an integrated shrimp farm in Malaysia, and in 2004, they established Integrated Aquaculture International (later to become iAqua), a technology company that owns a Litopenaeus vannamei breeding center and farm in Kauai, Hawaii, USA, and operates a Penaeus monodon breeding center and farm in Brunei.  They also manage nutrition centers for both species and assist feed manufacturing clients in the Americas and Asia.


Chamberlain served as President of the World Aquaculture Society in 1996.  In 1997, he acted as one of the founding fathers of the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) where he continues to serve as its President.  He initiated GAA’s prestigious magazine, The Global Aquaculture Advocate, the leading aquaculture magazine in the world today.  GAA began by providing a science-based response to environmentalists who were critical of aquaculture development, but it soon progressed to the development of the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification standards to guide the industry forward under the motto of Feeding the World Through Responsible Aquaculture.  Today, over three billion pounds of seafood are certified to BAP standards annually.


Shrimp News: Hi George, where were you born and raised?


George Chamberlain: I was born in Miami, Florida, USA, as the fourth of six children in a middle-income family.  We lived on “Fisherman” street in a suburb of Miami until I was about a year old.  Then my family moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where I grew up near a tributary of the St. John’s River, not far from its connection to the Atlantic Ocean.  During my childhood, one of my family’s favorite pastimes was to go the beach.  We especially liked an isolated spot, Little Talbot Island State Park, about twenty miles east of Jacksonville where we would picnic, swim and fish.  We often hiked several miles along the beach to a remote area at the far north end of the island, where the coastal environment seemed wild and natural.  During that same period, a TV series by Jacques Cousteau stirred my imagination about the wonders of the oceans.  Throughout my school years, I enjoyed the sciences, but had no particular interests other than sports.  I played baseball and football in high school and rowed on the crew at Jacksonville University.  Then, at JU, I happened to take a biology field trip with Dr. Relyae to seine one of the local salt marshes.  I was fascinated by all the species and stages of marine organisms that inhabited those shallow waters, and I began to collect organisms for my own saltwater aquarium.


Shrimp News: After graduating from Jacksonville University, did you go directly to graduate school at Texas A&M?


George Chamberlain: No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from college in 1974.  I applied for a job with the civil service and accepted the first offer, which was a “Sanitarian” with the Florida Department of Health.  I inspected drinking water purification plants and took samples of the water for microbiological testing.  I was trained by some retired Navy guys who worked at a very slow pace.  When they finally turned me loose after doing a number of practice audits, I started inspecting too many facilities in a day, and they said, “George you have to slow down.”  I said that I could check the same number of facilities that they were checking in half a day, and they winked at me and said, “That’s right.”   Catching on quickly, I adjusted to the leisurely work pace, and counted myself lucky to have a job that required so little.  A few months later, I found myself seining fish with my brother at lunchtime on a work day.  While pulling the seine through the muddy shallows, I sliced open my lower leg on a sharp oyster shell and was bleeding badly.  My brother rushed me to the hospital, where a surgeon sewed me up.  The next day when I reported for work, I was embarrassed to be questioned by my boss about the insurance claim for an injury during a workday.  I explained that it happened during my lunch hour, but the real truth was that I had become lax and disinterested in my job.  I realized that an easy mindless job was more a curse than a blessing.  Without passion for the work, I wasn’t driven to learn and be creative, and without overcoming challenges, I felt no satisfaction or accomplishment.  It was an important turning point for me.  I was inspired to get my life in order and do something meaningful.


In 1968, Professor Paul R. Ehrlich published a book titled The Population Bomb.  Ehrlich won the MacArthur Fellowship Award (nicknamed the Genius Grant) for the book in which he reported that it was already too late to overcome a Malthusian population explosion and its ensuing food shortages.  He predicted that there would be starvation in New York City by the year 2000, no matter what we did.  Of course, he turned out to be wrong—at least for now, but his warnings convinced me that we needed new ways to produce food.  So with my budding interest in marine biology and my enchantment with the oceans and Jacques Cousteau, I decided to pursue aquaculture as my career!


Shrimp News: Well, you weren’t wrong about aquaculture, George.


George Chamberlain: Maybe not in the long run, but I questioned my judgment in the initial years when the big crisis turned out to be energy with the oil shortages of 1970’s.  My buddies that went into geology were in huge demand, while aquaculture languished far in the background.  Eventually, aquaculture technology steadily improved and fishery landings flattened, which led to a steady rise in commercial aquaculture.  In retrospect, I was lucky to have joined the field just as the early growth began.  It has been a fun ride!


Shrimp News: How did you get to Texas A&M, where you eventually received a Ph.D.?


George Chamberlain: In a Post Office jeep.  I had been a scholarship student in college with good grades, good SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test) scores, high GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores and all that, so I was applied to eight top graduate schools: Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Miami, Florida State University, the University of Florida, the University of Washington, the University of Hawaii and Texas A&M University.  I was accepted by all of them, but the process seemed impersonal, expensive, and even intimidating.  I suppose I was expecting some sort of sign.  Then I got a personal letter from Dr. Kirk Strawn, a professor at Texas A&M, who said, “I can fit you into my research program with an assistantship that will cover your costs, and you can start right away in September.”  It was in June or July of 1975.  Another student had apparently dropped out leaving an open position, and I had a chance to jump right into field research.  Normally, graduate students do their course work first to learn the fundamentals and then do their research.  Dr. Strawn needed someone who already knew about aquaculture.  Truthfully, I knew very little, but I took a deep breath and dove in.


The research was in marine fish culture in cages within the estuarine cooling system of a large power plant near Houston, Texas.  Dr. Strawn had gotten a long-term grant from Houston Lighting and Power Company to do environmental monitoring of their new power plant that would be pumping water from the polluted Houston Ship Channel to the pristine Trinity Bay.  The plant was required to do a lot of monitoring, and Dr. Strawn shrewdly designed the project to accomplish that objective, while enabling his grad students to conduct aquaculture research at the same time.  In my case, I held fish in cages in the plant’s intake canal, discharge canal, and large cooling lakelike canaries in a coalmine.  They were live monitors to determine if the power plant was causing any environmental damage.  I installed extra cages at each location to test other things, like feeds, diets, densities and species.  I tried seven different species of marine fish.  One of the more interesting findings was how to overcome gas bubble disease.  During the winter, fish grew very fast in the heated water of the discharge canal, but they often died of gas bubble disease, which is like the bends that plagues deep sea divers.  My contribution was to submerge the cages a couple meters deep to keep the fish and the dissolved gases under pressure.  The fish survived just fine and grew quite well.


I got a chance to present those results at my first conference, the 1977 meeting of the World Mariculture Society in Costa Rica, which included a field trip to Maricultura—one of the first big shrimp farms in Central America.  The speaker ahead of me was Dr. Donald Lightner, a colleague whom I’ve admired ever since.  I presented my talk, answered a few questions from the audience, and felt super relieved when it was done.  Dr. Strawn instructed his students to go to the reception that night, but we skipped it in favor of some cultural exposure.  After the presentations, my buddies and I went into San Jose to study the Nocturnal Effect of Alcohol on Homo sapiens at Ten Degrees North Latitude.  Normally, my absence from the reception would never have been noticed, but I ended up being summoned to the front to receive the second best paper award.  Of course, I wasn’t there to receive it, so I was busted.  Nonetheless, Dr. Strawn kindly introduced me to some great researchers of the time, like Lauren Donaldson, a pioneer of trout genetics.  I just loved the World Mariculture Society, and I thrived in that community.  That’s why I later decided to give something back and serve on its board of directors.


Back to my early research days at Texas A&M: I drove to the Houston project from Florida in a former Post Office Jeep; I had no official living quarters and very little money; so I put a sleeping bag on the floor, slept and showered at the lab, and ate peanut butter sandwiches.  Everyday I would drive to the local 7-Eleven, buy a paper and check for places to live.  One day when I arrived, the lady behind the counter said, “Check the Classifieds”, where she had circled an ad for a garage apartment for $150 a month.  It was a clean simple place rented by a loving elderly couple.  I took it.


At about this time, Connie Arnold, a researcher at the University of Texas, achieved the breakthrough of spawning red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus, a marine fish species) using temperature and photoperiod manipulation.  His method induced the fish to spawn non-stop for months producing many millions of eggs.  He kindly gave me some of those eggs, which I hatched, reared to fingerlings, stocked in cages and grew out to market size.  It was fun to be at the very beginning of marine fish culture.  A few years later, I organized a meeting on red drum aquaculture.  We produced a video and a book to try to get red drum farming started in Texas.  Despite our best efforts, marine fish farming was not a very attractive proposition, because the species had a low market value at that time.  Meanwhile, a fellow researcher at A&M was doing research on shrimp farming.


Shrimp News: Who was that?


George Chamberlain: A fellow named Bob Berry.  I haven’t heard from him in years.


Shrimp News: Well, he got most of his name right.


George Chamberlain: Ha ha.  You’re too much, Bob!  This was 1975 or 1976; he was importing shrimp postlarvae from Panama, growing them in ponds and trying to determine which culture methods worked best.


Shrimp News: Was he dealing with guys like Bill More and Dave Drennan at Agromarina de Panama to get the postlarvae?


George Chamberlain: Maybe indirectly, but I think he went through intermediaries like Dr. Jack Parker within the TAMU system, who arranged the purchase of the postlarvae.  I was interested in Bob’s work because shrimp had much higher value and more commercial potential than marine fish at that time.  I completed my year of field research and then moved to the main campus of TAMU to complete my course work and write up my Masters thesis on the cage culture of marine fish.  During that time, I took an aquaculture class, where I met Susan Ball, fell hopelessly in love, and was married.  Throughout our 35 years of marriage, it was Susan’s support that helped me through some of my most difficult challenges, beginning with typing the 300+ pages of my Master’s thesis! After graduation, Dr. Strawn helped me get a fellowship and later an instructorship, so I was able to teach at the University for a while.  I enjoyed the teaching experience but felt inadequate with so little practical experience.  So, I accepted a position at the TAMU shrimp farming research center in Corpus Christi doing pond trials with L. vannamei and L. stylirostris.


Initially, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Jack Parker and Dr. Wallace Klussmann, but Dr. Addison Lawrence became my boss when he was hired by TAMU around 1982.  He got a grant to build a shrimp maturation laboratory at our site in Corpus Christi, and I became the manager of that lab.  At that time, reproduction was the main bottleneck to penaeid shrimp farming, so I decided to work toward a Ph.D. in shrimp reproduction with Dr. Lawrence as my chairman.


As part of my research, I joined a trawling expedition that would go offshore for ten days at a time and sample 27 stations for white shrimp and brown shrimp.  We collected adult shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico every month during the summer and every two months during the winter.  My job was to dissect out the gonads and hepatopancreas and store them on dry ice for later analysis of their biochemical composition.  The objective was to determine the natural reproductive processes in wild shrimp in order to simulate them in captivity.


At the same time, I worked in the maturation lab with L. stylirostris and L. vannamei attempting to optimize the environmental and nutritional requirements for controlled reproduction.  The work was pretty basic, because environmental conditions in the lab were poorly controlled and the diets we used were mainly natural foods.  I wish I could claim some great discovery, but most of the breakthroughs of the time were made by the French AquaCop Group in Tahiti and Ralston Purina in Crystal River, Florida, USA.  Since that work was largely proprietary, I was essentially re-inventing the wheel, but by publishing it, more people had access to the information.


After I completed my Ph.D., I began working for the Texas Agriculture Extension Service as an aquaculture specialist.  My job was to convey research information from academia to private sector fish and shellfish farmers, but I really had no idea of how to do that.  When I asked for advice from Roy Parker, a great Extension entomologist in Corpus Christi, he said, “George, the first thing you should do is publish a free newsletter, send it out to about a hundred people, and tell them that anyone else who wants it can also get it for free.”  Sometime around 1985, that’s exactly what I did, calling it Coastal Aquaculture.  The requests for it doubled with every issue—200, 400, 800—and then 2,000 with lots of international subscribers.  It eventually outgrew my copy machine, and the Texas A&M Sea Grant office began publishing it for me.  Roy was right about the effectiveness of the newsletter.  It was a fascinating way to communicate, because readers from around the world responded with lots of personal feedback.  I began to feel a deep connection with a network of fellow aquaculturists, many of whom were located outside of the USA.  This led to opportunities to work with some of them as a consultant on my vacation time.


Those consulting jobs took me to remarkable places like Senegal, Africa, various islands in Indonesia, and a hotbed of activity around Negros, Philippines.  At the project in the Philippines, I had an opportunity to work on one of the fascinating topics of the time—the growth-inhibiting effect of organic sludge in shrimp ponds.  Together with innovators like Steve Psinakis of the First Philippine Holdings Company, we dove the bottoms of intensive earthen ponds, witnessed the heavy deposition of sludge in the quiescent areas, observed the behavior of the shrimp, and measured the concentrations of hydrogen sulfide that were produced.  We worked with a company named Harza Engineering out of Chicago, Illinois, USA, that designed hydroelectric dams and big water holding projects.  Harza understood how to design impoundments using water currents to keep sediments suspended.  In the shrimp ponds, we played with horizontal water currents to move the sludge, vacuum devices to suck it out, and proper drying and tilling methods to convert the sulfides back to sulfates between cycles.


At the consulting assignment in Indonesia, I worked with Dr. Ali Poernomo on a grueling USA/AID mission, where we travelled all over the country by plane, jeep, and boat visiting shrimp hatcheries, farms, and processing plants in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java and Bali.  It was a fascinating introduction to Asian shrimp farming and my first exposure to the limits of carrying capacity within regions where unplanned expansion had progressed too quickly.


In 1990, I got a call from Larry Prewitt who was looking for a shrimp nutritionist for his program at Ralston Purina International in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.  I recommended Dean Akiyama, Benard Colvin and some other people.  He replied that he was not so much looking for laboratory nutritionists, as for someone with experience in shrimp farming.


So I gave him some other names, and then he said, “What we really want is somebody who works with the extension service.”


I said, “Well I work for the extension service.”


He said, “You do?  Maybe you should apply.”


And I said, “But I’m not looking for a job.”


And then he said, “We like to bring lots of people in to review our program to learn what the industry is all about.  It’s not just about hiring people.  Why don’t you come up to St. Louis and learn something about us and we’ll learn something about your extension program.”


By this time, Ralston Purina had closed its shrimp farming research lab in Crystal River, sold its shrimp farm in Panama and sold Purina Mills, its USA feed mill operation.  It was left with feed mills in 18 countries, some of which produced aquaculture feed, and it needed someone to manage that business.  I went up to their headquarters campus at “Checkerboard Square” in St. Louis, and Larry introduced me to his staff, various other department heads, and an impressive array of research facilities, labs, and pilot plants.  At the end of the day, Larry asked me what I thought, and I told him he had an amazing program and I thanked him for introducing me to it.


Then he said, “Well do you want the job?”


I responded, “But what about all those other people you were going to interview?”


And he said, “We don’t really need to bother with that.”


I said, “I don’t even know what it pays.”


And he said, “Why don’t you think about it and tell us what you want.”


Wow!  It seemed like such an impressive opportunity, but I was concerned about the required international travel and the impact it might have on my family.  By then, Susan and I had four children ranging from 4 to 10 years old and we treasured our time with them.  Susan and I spent the weekend deliberating and finally decided to accept the position and make the move to St. Louis, Missouri.  I left the university where my activities were constrained by resources and where much of my time was spent worrying about petty territorial disputes.  At Ralston Purina, resources were no longer a constraint and co-workers welcomed any help in their areas.  My only constraint was how fast I was willing to run.  It was a huge leap.  I started the job in June of 1990 and every month visited a different country.  Ralston Purina had operations in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Canada, Spain, Korea, China and the Philippines, altogether about 12 countries.  I did that for a year and then began again, steadily building each program.


Before going to work for Purina, I had always used their feeds in my research work.  Purina was the Microsoft of the feed world.  They had feeds for all kinds of animals—cattle, chickens, pigs, trout, turtles, frogs, alligators—and shrimp.  Their research program was outstanding, but notoriously secretive.  When I arrived at Purina’s corporate headquarters in St. Louis, I couldn’t wait to see their file room and review their research on feeds and pond trials at the shrimp research lab in Crystal River, Florida, USA, and the shrimp farm in Panama.  I was surprised when I was led to a small set of filing cabinets, because I expected a monstrous collection.  I was even more surprised when I was told that all the shrimp farming documents were in just the bottom drawer of one filling cabinet.  In that drawer, I was excited to find a document titled:  The Purina Shrimp Farming Manual, but it turned out to be a copy of the Texas Shrimp Farming Manual that I had written as an extension agent!


Shrimp News: What about all the project reports on the Crystal River, Florida, shrimp farming research lab and the farm in Panama?


George Chamberlain: Purina did generate enormous amounts of data on its shrimp feeds and farming activities, but those documents were archived in a warehouse and inadvertently discarded during a clean up.  All that research information was lost.  So when I arrived at Purina, I was starting with pretty much a blank slate.  I had to recreate all the diets.  Nutritionists at Purina took me under their wing and showed me how to do it.  We had to create a new system for formulating shrimp feeds.  The old system was based on fixed formulas, which don’t work well because ingredient costs are always changing.  It’s better to have a nutrient-based formulation system, which allows one to adjust the formula to reduce the cost without changing the nutritional quality.  We developed a new least-cost formulation system starting with shrimp, then extended it to fish, and launched it in several countries.


Shrimp News: Didn’t you go to Mexico with Purina?


George Chamberlain: Yes, in 1992, my family and I moved to Mexico, so that I could focus more attention on the shrimp feed program in Mexico.  At that time, Purina had only a 20% market share in Mexico, and the feed quality was poor.  We began by improving the manufacturing process and the quality of the ingredients.  We did a lot of analytical testing of our ingredients and finished feeds, and we also conducted regular feeding trials to track our improving performance relative to the competition.  Finally, we began offering technical services and special incentives for feed customers, like free trips to the World Aquaculture Society Meetings.  It all came together and ended up being a strong program in Mexico.  Within a few years, we had gained 80% of the shrimp feed business in Mexico.


Shrimp News: When did you become active in WAS?


George Chamberlain: In 1990—the same year that I joined Purina—I also was elected to the World Aquaculture Society Board of Directors, where I served until 1997.  For the first few years, I really didn’t do much but sit through the annual board meetings and observe.  Then, I became more active as the Secretary of the Society and then the Treasurer.  As Treasurer, I noticed that one of the big costs was that the Society’s magazine, which was running two or three issues behind schedule.  I volunteered to help the editor, Dave Aiken.  He said, “Why don’t you take one issue and do it all by yourself; so you take it completely off my shoulders.”  So my wife Susan and I took it on without knowing anything about publishing a magazine, other than having written a newsletter.  We had to find and edit the articles, sell the advertising, and do the entire layout from scratch.  Doing all this for the first time took an outrageous amount of time.  We learned the hard way how much work a magazine could be!


My term on the board of WAS culminated with my election as President in 1995.  In its first 27 years, the Society had never held a meeting in Asia; however, one was planned for 1996 during my term as president.  Back then, the president was responsible for organizing the annual meeting that occurred during his tenure.  Consequently, the quality of the meeting would vary depending on the amount of time the president had to make the preparations.  I was scheduled to organize the meeting in Bangkok, so I asked the previous president, “Well what’s been planned so far?”  He responded, “Nothing yet, you will have to go over to Thailand a year a head of time and meet the host,” which in this case was the Thai Department of Fisheries.  I heard that it was appropriate to take a gift, so I bought what I thought was a slick little gift.  It was an electronic day timer kind of thing, which cost about fifty dollars.  I went to Thailand and visited with Dr. Plodprasop Suraswadi, the Director of Fisheries, head of a four billion dollar export industry with 5,000 employees, a very, very capable professional guy.  My puny, little calculator was a bit of an embarrassment when compared to his domain.


I had a session with him, and he said, “What do you want, and what can I do for you.”


I said, “I would like to visit several convention facilities in different parts of the country to find a venue for the meeting, and I’d like to visit the offices of a dozen companies and associations that might sponsor or assist with the meeting.  He said, “George, do you know anything about Bangkok traffic?  You could spend all day just meeting one or two groups.  How about we have them all come here to my office.”


I said, “That would be just great.”


He said, “When do you want them here, how about tomorrow at 9:00 a.m.?”


I said, “Wonderful.”


So the next morning at 9:00 a.m., all these people were lined up like magic, but I didn’t understand why they seemed to have deep frowns on their faces.  CP Group’s Dr. Lin gave me a hint when he said, “I’m not sure how it is in America, but here it’s customary for the guest to visit the host.”  I hadn’t realized that they didn’t have the option of declining an invitation from Dr. Plodprasop, so they felt compelled to drop everything and come to the Department of Fisheries in response his summons.  Fortunately, they seemed to forgive me since I was novice unfamiliar with local customs.  We had a discussion, and Dr. Plodprasop sent me off with an interpreter and a driver.  John Cooksey, the current conference manager for WAS, who had just left his job with the Seafood Leader magazine and the Seafare Convention Group, joined me.  He was on contract with the Society to help plan meetings and was a huge help.  He and I looked at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center in Bangkok, then we went to Pattaya, a resort city about 100 miles southeast of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand, and looked at a huge hotel convention center complex.  We quickly discovered that to rent space in Bangkok or Pattaya would cost around $200,000, and that would mean that we would have to charge a higher registration fee than the Society normally does.  I contacted Dr. Plodprasop and told him that instead of charging a $300 registration fee, we were going to have to charge each participant $350 or $400.


He said, “No, no, here in Thailand we have very poor farmers.  I don’t think we should charge them anymore than $40 each, and I think we should give them a free lunch.”


To get the registration fee that low, we would have to make more revenue on the trade show, so we looked at our trade show options.  We could count on groups like CP to take multiple booths, but most of the other vendors of aquaculture equipment and supplies in Thailand were very small shops in small towns.  We concluded that they wouldn’t be interested in an international trade show.  That’s just not the way the business operated in Thailand.  Given that the convention cost was going to be high and that we couldn’t expect much revenue from registration fees or the trade show, I worried that the meeting was going to lose money and might even bankrupt the WAS.  I had serious misgivings and was considering retreating back to the USA for a site.  My time in Thailand was coming to an end.  I couldn’t sleep, and there was no solution in sight.  Then it dawned on me that the companies that really made the money in this four billion a year export industry were the processors.  They were the big companies that would care about promoting their products at a trade show.  At a last minute emergency meeting at Dr. Plodprasop’s office just before I left Thailand, I proposed that we have the first ever seafood show at a WAS conference.   Dr. Lin of the CP Group, who happened to be at this meeting, said that the government levied an export promotion tax on every ton of seafood that was exported from Thailand and that revenue must be accumulating somewhere.  Dr. Plodprasop picked up the phone, called the Thai Department of Commerce, had about a five-minute conversation, hung up the phone and said, “We have access to twenty million baht ($800,000) in the promotion fund.” All of a sudden, we went from a financial disaster to a well-funded event with a seafood show and a conference.  From that point forward, all went well, the event was well attended, and it later ranked as the second best show in the Asian Pacific that year—not just of aquaculture conventions, but also of all conventions.  WAS not only had its maiden introduction to Asia, but also made a profit and launched the Asian/Pacific Chapter of the Society at that meeting.  We owe it all to Drs. Lin and Plodprasop for being such strong supporters.


Shrimp News: Going back to Purina, why did you decide to leave?


George Chamberlain: The turning point came in 1998.  I was convinced that the whitespot epidemic that had devastated the industry in Asia was coming to the Americas.  It had already appeared in the National Zoo in Washington, DC, USA, in wild shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, and at Harlingen Shrimp Farms in Texas.  These were like little flames of disease that quickly fizzled out, but I worried that it might flare up in a major shrimp production area and cause a flash fire that would rage throughout Latin America as it had in Asia.  I informed the Purina management that, in my opinion, it was not a question of “if” there was going to be a major whitespot epidemic in the Western Hemisphere—but “when.”  I told Purina that we needed to go beyond simply selling feed.  We needed to help our feed customers make their systems more biosecure with less reliance on water exchange and more on aeration and water reuse.  After having witnessed aquaculture in Asia, I felt that the key was a more integrated approach with technical assistance to farms.  I visualized Purina’s aquaculture program evolving to be more integrated and involved in hatcheries, processing and marketing, like Tyson had done with poultry in the USA and like CP and Nutreco were doing with aquaculture in other parts of the world.  When I pitched the idea to Purina, the business manager at the time said, “George, we have a great business here; are you really sure about this whitespot epidemic coming?  Why don’t you meet with all the research directors in Latin America and come back with their consensus.  We would like to know when, with 95% confidence, you expect it to hit the Western Hemisphere.”  So I met with the research directors and we came to the conclusion that there was a 95% chance that whitespot would hit the Western Hemisphere in 1999.  I reported that to the business manager, but he decided not to change anything.  It was then that I began to feel disenchanted with Purina.  It was no longer the visionary company it had once been.  The company was spinning off many of its businesses and seemed more focused on stock value than on customer service.


As it turned out, whitespot hit Panama and Guatemala in late 1998, and swept into Ecuador in January 1999.  It soon spread throughout Latin America.


Around that time, a headhunter contacted me about a job with Monsanto as technical director of its new venture into aquaculture.  Monsanto was interested in developing a program with three main thrusts: breeding, soy-based feeds, and advanced pond systems.  This approach rang true with my conviction that an integrated approach was needed, so I accepted the position and left Purina on good terms.  At Monsanto, we came off the starting blocks at an incredibly fast pace.  I felt like I had jumped onto a locomotive speeding down a steep mountain.  Monsanto had already spent millions of dollars studying aquaculture and trying to find its best fit.  It had considered developing water treatment systems, but concluded that there was no way to protect intellectual property rights for combinations of pumps and filters.  It eventually concluded that breeding would be the future driver of the aquaculture business.  Monsanto was one of the world’s largest plant breeders, so this was a natural fit.  It began to look at various aquatic species, like trout, salmon and catfish—and eventually decided that shrimp was the best species to pursue.  The strategy expanded to include soy-based feeds and advanced production systems.  We charged off in those directions with an explosion of research and business activities, but within months the program abruptly came to a halt when Monsanto faced a corporate financial crisis.  A corporate merger had been under way with American Home Products.  Robert Shapiro, the president of Monsanto, was going to be a Co-CEO in the merged company with John Stafford, the CEO of American Home Products.  The two CEOs were going to co-run the merged company.  Unfortunately, the two CEOs realized that they couldn’t work together, and they called the merger off in the eleventh hour.  Monsanto had accumulated several billion dollars of debt while acquiring seed companies around the world and had planned on the American Home Product merger to help pay off those debts.  When the deal fell through, Monsanto had to sell off assets, like NutraSweet and other subsidiaries.  The entire division where the new aquaculture program was housed lost its funding.


Shrimp News: Did the numbers work for the proposed shrimp farming venture?  Did Monsanto think it could make money in shrimp farming?


George Chamberlain: It looked promising.  The financial guys projected that it could be a billion dollar global business.  Of course, there were many questions, which we never got to answer, because the business was aborted.  I ended up with a severance package that gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do next.  I was no longer enamored about working for a large corporation like Monsanto or Ralston Purina, and I decided it was time to go off on my own.  I had grown to appreciate private-sector people as being the real risk takers, the entrepreneurs, the people that put their chips on the table and lived or died by their own wits.  I felt like I had been protected by the cocoon of academia and big corporations.  I wanted a change to prove myself as an entrepreneur.  I am grateful to Randall Aungst for encouraging me in this direction.  I was planning to hire Randall to run Monsanto’s planned shrimp breeding program in Singapore, but I had to call him to tell him the position was no longer available.  Randall had previously worked in shrimp hatcheries in Malaysia and felt that he and I could implement a less expensive version of Monsanto’s shrimp breeding program in Malaysia.  All we needed was an investor, so I called Ken Morrison, an American who had owned a big shrimp farm in Ecuador.


Remember when I told you that whitespot was going to hit the Western Hemisphere in 1998?  During that time when I was with Ralston Purina, we were negotiating with Ken to manage his feed mill in Ecuador.  That deal did not work out because of some legal issues on the Purina side, but in seeing his farm and seeing how interwoven it was with other shrimp farms throughout the Guayas River Delta in Ecuador, I told him that his 2,000 hectares of shrimp ponds as well as his hatcheries, feed mill and processing plant were at risk of getting wiped out by whitespot.  Later that year, he had an offer from someone to buy that business.  It was during an El Niño, and all the farms were prosperous and producing big crops.  Partly on my advice, Ken sold the complete operation before whitespot hit.  So, I contacted him, and asked him if he wanted to get involved in a new shrimp breeding business in Asia.  He asked how much it was going to cost.  I told him about five million dollars.  He said he was interested and invited and me to come see him in Nebraska.  That meeting led to the development of Black Tiger Aquaculture, a Penaeus monodon farm and breeding company in Malaysia.


Shrimp News: Was Randy Aungst a partner with you?


George Chamberlain: No, Randy opted not to become a partner, like Ken and I.  He managed the operation, but chose not to invest in the business.  We took over an existing farm in Malaysia that had repeatedly failed due to whitespot.  We proved that we could manage against whitespot.  We built a hatchery, renovated the processing plant and developed a breeding program.  When the shrimp dumping case hit in 1994, Malaysia was not one of the countries named in the case.  A lot of groups saw Malaysia as an attractive location for shrimp farming, and several groups offered to buy our farm.  Mr. Morrison thought that would be a great time to put a little money in our pockets.  So we sold the business, took the profits, and started a new business called Integrated Aquaculture International, an aquaculture technology company.  We began at Agrobest, a farm north of Black Tiger Aquaculture, in Malaysia, where we took some of our P. monodon stocks and started a breeding program.


About a year after we moved to Agrobest, we discovered that our stocks had been infected with a new disease called Monodon Slow Growth Syndrome.  We had to change locations and start over again from zero. 


As it happened, the Brunei government was also considering what to do with their aquaculture facilities.  So, together we embarked on a five-year program to develop advanced technology to produce large size black tiger shrimp for high value niche markets.  This was a very comprehensive program that began with development of a fully equipped a diagnostic lab.  Once we could detect all the diseases, we began a quarantine program and developed SPF monodon stocks.  Then, we introduced those stocks into a selective breeding program where we are now in our 6th generation.  Next, we developed a nutrition program and new generation ponds with high biosecurity, self-cleaning bottoms, automatic feeders, recirculating water systems and mechanical harvest.  We put all the pieces together in our first production cycle and found that monodon could grow rapidly to large sizes with high yields and low FCRs.  We are now working with the Brunei government to privatize that operation by leasing those facilities and running the program as a business.


Along the way, we provided management services to a vannamei hatchery in China called Allied Pacific.  We redesigned its hatchery and water treatment system.  Allied Pacific was buying its vannamei broodstock from Kona Bay Marine Resources in Kauai, Hawaii, USA, and we began communicating with Jim Sweeney who was managing the Kona Bay facility.  Then, while I was attending the Boston Seafood Show in 2009, Jim called, and said, “George the owners of Kona Bay have decided to sell, and they’re in a hurry to auction off the entire facility—the farm, the hatchery and the processing plant.”  That was on a Wednesday night.  On Thursday, I called Mr. Morrison and asked him if he had any interest in purchasing Kona Bay.  On Friday, he and I jumped on a plane to Hawaii.  On Saturday we looked at all the facilities.  They were gorgeous.  On Sunday we made an offer, and on Monday, we owned Kona Bay.


The first thing we did was field test Kona Bay’s broodstock in Malaysia, China, Indonesia and Hawaii, and we discovered that their performance was mediocre, so we did not sell many animals in 2010.  Instead we invested in new facilities, hired Dick Towner, an outstanding geneticist, and other new people.  In 2011, we started selling our broodstock, and our animals performed much better.  In 2012, our animals improved further and sales began to take off.  By then we had field data from hatcheries and farms that showed great performance.  Performance and sales are expected to improve further in 2013.


Shrimp News: How’s Kona Bay’s shrimp farm doing?


George Chamberlain: When we bought Kona Bay, its farm had a history of two whitespot outbreaks that mystified its previous owners given the remote location of the farm.  They thought the farm might be a victim of sabotage.  In all of our years in the shrimp farming business, we had never heard any credible reports of whitespot outbreaks being caused by sabotage.  Instead, we began evaluating the more common potential vectors.  The only logical vector was bird transmission from the landfill near the farm where raw shrimp processing wastes might get dumped.  “No, no,” said our employees, “the species of birds up there don’t come to the farm.”  We went up to the landfill to have a look, and sure enough the species of birds at the landfill—mynah birds and cattle egrets—don’t make side trips to our farm.  I asked the guy at the landfill if raw shrimp were ever dumped at the site and if there were ever different species of birds there, and he said, “No, this is what we normally have, except when we have a power outage on the island, then we get tons of raw shrimp, and all kinds of birds.”  So that explained the source of the whitespot outbreak.  We began covering all the ponds with bird netting and just as we began covering the last pond, we had another outbreak in four or five of the fifty ponds, but because we had bird netting in place, it didn’t spread.  We only had severe mortality in one of the ponds, moderate mortality in a couple of ponds and light mortality in a couple more.  We were able to take our time and harvest the diseased ponds.  The disease never spread.  We drained and dried the diseased ponds and haven’t seen whitespot since then.  That was in the 2011 fall season, about a year and a half ago.  It shows that proper biosecurity does work.


Shrimp News: Where do you market your shrimp?


George Chamberlain: We began by selling only fresh shrimp directly from the ponds to local outlets in Hawaii.  Now, we’ve reached the limit of what we can sell fresh, so we’ve activated our processing plant, created new packaging, and begun offering our large head-on shrimp under the brand, “Kauai Shrimp”, with the tag line, “Pure and Simple”.  We produce 30-50 gram sizes and freeze them within a few hours of harvest.  We’re just in the process of sending samples to premium buyers in the USA and Japan, but we’re getting an enthusiastic response based on the quality and taste of our shrimp.


Shrimp News: Is Jim Sweeney still your farm manager?


George Chamberlain: Yes, and he has introduced clams in our ponds to eat the excess algae and produce a second high value crop.  The clams are fantastic, but until recently, we were not able to sell them because there was no FDA-accredited shellfish sanitation lab in Hawaii.  With some other groups, we lobbied to get one, and now a shellfish sanitation lab has been established.  The lab tested our clams, and now we are cleared for sale.


Shrimp News: Why clams and not oysters?


George Chamberlain: Because clams take very little labor to produce.  They can move about and take care of themselves.  Your have to continually clean oysters, otherwise the sediment will smother them.  Clams are less work than oysters, which bring a higher price, but they require more work.  The clams are easy, and we think they are going to be a nice source of revenue.


At the farm, we endured a public EPA hearing to renew our discharge permit, where we had to explain to the public what we were doing.  We reviewed the permit issued to the previous owners of the farm and decided we would ask only to discharge 60% of the amount in their permit.  However, just to prove what we could do, we actually operated with no discharge for the first four years of farm operation.  Now that we are putting more ponds into service, we’re beginning to discharge a small volume, but we are far below our permitted volume.


Shrimp News: What do you do with the solid wastes from the shrimp ponds?


George Chamberlain: The shrimp ponds operate on a biofloc system and what little water that we do discharge goes into our drainage ditch, which is sandy.  Before the discharge exits our property, it drains into the sand.  We have permission to discharge millions of gallons a day, but we have not discharged any.


Shrimp News: Is all the sludge oxidized in some way?  What becomes of it?


George Chamberlain: We grow tilapia in our drainage ditch and they eat most of the organic matter so we don’t have much sludge.  We use very little water exchange, which improves our feed conversion ratios.  If you use water exchange to flush out organic wastes from the ponds, a lot of valuable feed and nutrients can be wasted.  As I mentioned, we also grow clams on that nutrient-rich water.


Shrimp News:  How did the Global Aquaculture Alliance begin?


George Chamberlain: Actually, it had it roots in WAS around the time of the Bangkok meeting in 1996.  Andy Davlin, a financial advisor to the aquaculture industry, was convinced that there was a need for a commercially oriented aquaculture association, and he used to write a public letter to WAS each year complaining that the society wasn’t doing enough.  Each year, whoever was President would respond to Andy by advising him that WAS was an academic organization whose charter prevented such commercial activities.  During my term as President of WAS, Andy somehow missed sending me a letter.  When I saw him at the 1996 annual meeting in Bangkok at the very end of my term, I invited him to join me for breakfast with the upcoming WAS President, Meryl Broussard.  During the conversation, Andy began his familiar tirade about the need for WAS to be more commercially oriented, and Meryl made the brilliant suggestion that it would be more appropriate to form a separate international aquaculture trade association.  That idea resonated with me, so as I finished up my term with WAS, I tried to help Andy organize the new association with the expectation that he would run it.  I asked the Board of directors for permission to host a discussion at the next WAS meeting in Seattle in 1997.


As it happened, the environmental movement began to exert tremendous pressure on the shrimp farming sector at that time.  Activists were claiming that shrimp farming had destroyed 50% of the world’s mangroves.  Well coordinated NGO’s organized so-called “Shrimp Farming Tribunals” at the United Nations building in New York.  Most shrimp farmers felt those assertions could only be true elsewhere, so the Thai’s blamed the Ecuadorians and vice versa.  No one really knew the facts.  In 1996, boycotts were threatened, moratoria on further growth were planned and the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of environmentalists in closing shrimp farms within 500 meters of the high tide mark.  These reactions were partly a misperception that many shrimp farms were failing because they were inherently unsustainable.  In reality, their failure was a function of a whitespot epidemic that was in full swing throughout Asia at that time.


I began writing to various industry leaders asking their opinions about forming an international aquaculture trade association and encouraging them to join us for the discussion in Seattle.  At that discussion in 1997, some 55 delegates participated.  Andy Davlin began with a convincing argument about the need for such an organization.  One-by-one, each participant expressed his or her views, and the group reached unanimous agreement.  Just before our time ran out, Dr. Plodprasop, who had been so influential at the 1996 WAS meeting in Thailand, stood and said that it had been a good discussion, but that the meeting would soon end and nothing further would happen unless we took action.  He recommended that an Organizing Committee be formed and that I chair that committee.  I agreed, provided others would help.  Immediately, several people raised their hands including Andy Davlin, Bill Herzig, Jim Heerin, Peder Jacobson and Lee Weddig.  Bill agreed to host the first meeting of the Organizing Committee at the Darden Restaurants headquarters in Orlando, Florida, USA.  At that meeting, we chose the name, Global Aquaculture Alliance.  Lee Weddig, the Executive Director of the National Fisheries Institute, drafted the GAA bylaws and our Guiding Principles.  We planned our first fund-raising event at the shrimp farming meeting in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, later that Spring.  Each of the Organizing Committee members pledged the support of our companies as Founding Members of GAA.  When we were finished with our pledges, we held our breath and hoped that others would join us.  Bob, as I vividly recall, you were one of the very first to pledge your support as a Founding Member.  Thank you for helping to found GAA.


With the needed startup funds in place, one of the next issues was operations.  My wife, Susan, kindly agreed to help us manage the startup organization.  She set up an office in our living room, managed our administration, bookkeeping and member outreach.  We began by enlisting help from mangrove experts around the world to collect the facts about the actual destruction caused by shrimp farming.  They concluded that shrimp farming caused only a tiny portion of the overall mangrove loss.  On the one hand, that gave us the facts needed to dispel exaggerated assertions that were common at the time, but on the other hand, it also led us to shift direction to a more proactive approach to prevent any further loss of mangroves.  That proactive approach, based on best management practices, eventually grew to become the BAP certification program.  At more that one point in those startup years, we ran out of money and were technically bankrupt.  Somehow, our supporters always came to the rescue and kept GAA going.  We started a newsletter that grew to become a magazine.  We eventually moved to an office, where Susan continued to handle the administration including organizing the Global Shrimp Outlook meeting, which grew to become today’s GOAL meeting.  She also helped establish the Aquaculture Certification Council, which grew to become the Best Aquaculture Practices certification program.  Sadly, Susan suddenly and unexpectedly passed away in February 2012.  She was a remarkable person, who quietly moved mountains from behind the scenes.  Her main mission in life was to raise our family, but she made room for the aquaculture industry as part of our extended family.  So, she went beyond raising our four children, and actually raised a fifth, GAA.  And she was so proud of all of them!


Shrimp News: So how is GAA doing today?


George Chamberlain:  The program has come a long way thanks to great support from members and capable leadership from our board and Executive Director, Wally Stevens.  We now have offices in the states of Missouri, Florida and Washington as well as international teams in the United Kingdom, France, Norway and Australia.  The BAP program has continued to generate new farm standards, which now include the full range of finfish and crustacean standards as well as a recently released mussel standard.  It also includes standards for processing plants, hatcheries, and feed mills.  The program is well accepted at the retail and food service level, and about 1.4 million metric tons (about 3.4 billion pounds) of farmed seafood are now certified to BAP standards.  The annual GOAL meeting has become an important strategic gathering for industry leaders including buyers, producers, suppliers, regulators, academics and NGOs.  The next meeting will be in Paris on October 7-10.


Information: Dr. George Chamberlain, iAqua and Global Aquaculture Alliance, 4111 Telegraph Road, Suite 302, St. Louis, Missouri 63129, USA (1-314-492-5058, mobile: 314-607-8466, email or, webpages and


Source: Dr. George Chamberlain, interviewed by Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News InternationalWorld Aquaculture Society Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, USA (February 21-25, 2013).  February 23, 2013.

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