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Vanna’s Tale

Vanna Vannamei Predicts the Future of Shrimp Farming in 1991


Hi, I’m Vanna Vannamei, a whiteleg shrimp.  My tale is about the future of shrimp farming, but first I want to tell you a little about myself.  After hatching in the balmy waters off the coast of Ecuador, I quickly passed through several biological stages, no less complicated and mysterious than those of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.  When my body finally took on the characteristics of an adult shrimp, offshore currents and tides carried me into the Gulf of Guayaquil, where I spent a scary adolescence dodging predators—and the nets of humans.  The humans netted millions of my friends, stocked them in ponds, fed them until they got big and strong, and then sold their frozen tails as human food.  Egads, what a terrible fait.


The rich, brackish waters of the Gulf are loaded with delicious things to eat, and I got bigger and stronger with every molt.  My friends kidded me about my jumbo tail, which helped me leap higher above the water than any other shrimp my age.  A tangle of mangrove roots protected me from the nets of humans.  Oh, how I hate nets.


One day, when I was almost full grown, bewildering changes began to take place in my body and mind.  The area under my back started to fill with eggs, and I had a strong desire to return to the ocean.  Yielding to this desire, I blindly swam out to sea, finding the deep, clean, salty waters of my early childhood.  There were lots of other big shrimp out there, including Ernesto Gonzales, “Ernie” for short, a big, handsome guy who made my heart flutter.  One evening, in the afterglow of an especially beautiful Ecuadorean sunset, I instinctively scented the water around Ernie with a secret perfume.  He chased after me.  Afterward, trembling with excitement and grinning in happy ignorance, we said our goodbyes.


As my thoughts turned to spawning, something horrible happened that changed my life forever!  Shwooosh!  I was netted by the humans.  Gasping for water, I found myself on the deck of a boat, then in the hands of a human who tossed me into a small tank.  Later, they moved me to a big circular tank.  It had soft lights, warm water, perfect salinity.  It reminded me of the deep ocean waters where I met Ernie.  I called it paradise, but the humans called it a “maturation tank”.  The food was sumptuous.  Fresh squid, crab, clams, worms—even the diets made by the humans were tasty.  The humans raved about the quantity and quality of my eggs.


On one of my aerobic leaps above the tank, I saw my future!  Several of my friends who had been removed from the maturation tank lay dead in a bucket.  Yes, I, too, was headed for the bottom of the bucket.  It was at this point that I decided to take control of my life, to educate myself—to escape!


While plotting my escape, I learned as much as possible about the farm-raised shrimp industry, most of it from other shrimp.  Every day new shrimp from the wild and from farms were being added to the maturation tank.  They told amazing stories of life in the wild and on shrimp farms.  They whispered about exotic shrimp farms in far-flung lands.  I feel compelled to relay their stories to you now, for if my escape fails, the information will be lost forever.


In 1990, for the tenth year in a row, shrimp farmers produced record crops: 1.46 billion pounds of live shrimp, enough to serve a shrimp cocktail to every human on the face of the earth.  Production was up 17 percent from the record harvest of 1.24 billion pounds in 1989.  Approximately 2.5 million acres of ponds yielded over 560 pounds per acre.  That’s the equivalent of 2.5 million football fields each covered with 16,000 shrimp.  Shrimp farmers now produce 25 percent of the shrimp placed on world markets—fishermen 75 percent—out of a total market of 5.73 million pounds.  In 1980, only ten years ago, shrimp farmers produced about 2 percent of the world’s shrimp needs.  Now, there are more than 20,000 shrimp farmers in the world.  They love to brag about the industry’s rapid growth.


Shrimp were not my only source of information for this report.  Technicians, biologists, hatchery managers, farm owners and investors often gathered around the maturation tank and talked about the future of shrimp farming.  I listened to their conversations, listened for bits and pieces of information that might aid my escape.  Where do these insiders think the industry will be in the year 2000?  Here’s what they’re saying:


Shrimp farmers don’t expect any major breakthroughs in the next decade.  Nothing that will double or triple production, no magic wands to cure disease, no secret technologies that will quadruple worldwide production.  Recent production increases of 20 to 40 percent per year will come to and end.  At the very best, production will increase 10 percent per year for the next ten years.  Incremental improvements, not dramatic breakthroughs, will power this growth.  If the industry achieves a 10 percent growth rate, worldwide production of farm-raised shrimp would be 3.7 billion pounds per year at the millennium, two and a half times greater than today’s levels!  If that happens, farmers will control almost 50 percent of the world shrimp market.


We shrimp think they can do it, and the humans are very confident.  Modern shrimp farming has a short history, just fifteen years.  It’s still “new”, still a trial and error business—still at the very beginning of its evolutionary journey.  There’s no “best way” to farm shrimp.  Equipment and techniques are primitive, experimental and frequently designed for other industries.  Aeration equipment, which adds extra oxygen to the water, supports amazingly high stocking densities and yields, yet most farms don’t use it, and few farms can afford to implement it on a large scale.  High-quality feeds have the potential for increasing production far beyond current levels.  Yet, high quality feeds are not always available.  Harvesting systems need work.  When all the pieces fall into place, shrimp farming will be a much more efficient industry.


Currently, worldwide production of farm-raised shrimp averages about 560 pounds per acre per year, but in some parts of the world, farms produce 20,000 pounds per acre, more than thirty-five times the average.  Experimental farms have produced the equivalent of 100,000 pounds per acre per year.  This is not to suggest that all the farms in the world will be producing 100,000 pounds per acre by the year 2000.  It’s just an indication that there’s plenty of room for expansion within the current structure.  Production per hectare could double by the year 2000.


Hatcheries, where I spent most of my captive life, remain the weak link in the production cycle.  Feeding the various larval stages takes a major effort, and hatcheries are plagued with management, disease and water quality problems—but they are constantly improving and constantly increasing production.  Hundreds of researchers in a dozen countries work on unraveling the mysteries of hatchery production, and thousands of hatcherymen in all the shrimp farming countries tinker with new techniques, designs and ideas.  When hatcheries become more reliable—and they will by the 21st century—the production of farm-raised shrimp will take a big leap forward.


Currently, viral and bacterial diseases interfere with production in the hatchery and during growout.  As diseases are brought under control, production will become more predictable and reliable.  In the year 2000, farmers will know a lot more about managing around disease, which takes 30 percent of production today.  Other agro-industries have learned to deal with disease, and so will shrimp farming.  What would the industry’s production be in the year 2000 if it were disease free?


The biggest boost to production will come from marketing.  Shrimp has never really been effectively marketed.  Limited supplies of wild shrimp keep prices high.  As farms double production and lower prices, marketing efforts will increase.  At the risk of sounding like a female chauvinist shrimp, I predict that women, worldwide, will become the best market for farm-raised shrimp in the 1990s.  Traditionally, men have sold shrimp to other men.  When they begin selling it to women, they will double their market.


Japan, the United States, and to a lesser extent, Western Europe are the big-three markets for farm-raised shrimp.  A new market will emerge in the 1990s that will be bigger than all three of these markets combined.  Southeast Asia.  It already consumes large amounts of farm-raised shrimp.  You just don’t hear much about it.  South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are big consumers of farm-raised shrimp.  As prices fall, new markets will open in China, Indonesia, Thailand, India and the Philippines.  Most of these countries are headed toward greater prosperity, and they all farm shrimp.  They will continue to export large quantities, but internal markets will be much more important in the year 2000.  From production to consumption, Southeast Asia will play a dominant role in all shrimp markets at the millennium!  Ecuador will continue to carry the banner for shrimp farming in the western hemisphere.  Central America and Mexico will play increasingly important roles.


But that’s enough star-gazing for now, let’s get back to my escape.  All in all, it was rather unspectacular.  While the humans were transferring me from one hatchery to another, the pick-up truck was forced off the road and tumbled over.  My tank spilled onto the ground.  Several powerful tail thrusts landed me in a nearby estuary, where I found freedom forever.


Later, I started a little consulting business.  I help escaped “farm-raised” shrimp make the adjustment to the wild.  Farmers are now using a new, improved seedstock that has extra big tails—and great leaping abilities.  Marketed under the name “Jumbo Jumpers” in the United States and “Giant Leapers” in Asia, these shrimp take great delight in leaping out of ponds.  You guessed it.  They’re my kids!


As the consulting business expanded, I spread the word that I was looking for a partner.  A couple of days later, an old, handsome, wild shrimp walked into the office.  My God, it was Ernie, my first love.  He was perfect for the job.  We formed a partnership and made lots of money.  On Sundays, when the kids come by, we sit around and chew holes in fishermen’s nets and tell fantastic stories about life on the farms and in the wild.


Sources 1. Seafood Leader.  Editor and Publisher, Peter Redmayne (1115 N. W. 46 Street, Seattle, WA 98107, phone, 206-547-0201, fax 206-789-9193). Vanna’s Tale: Shrimp Farming 2000. Vanna Vannamei. Bob Rosenberry.  V-11, N-1, January/February 1991.  2. Re-edited by Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International.  May 2017.

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