The United States imported approximately $3 million worth of shrimp in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture professor David Brune said he wants to keep some of that money local.
In a one-twentieth-acre greenhouse, Brune is working to bring fresher, higher-quality shrimp to Missourians.
Brune farms saltwater shrimp in a zero-discharge system, which means no water is lost.
William Wurts, an extension aquaculture specialist at Kentucky State University, said zero-discharge is what makes Brune’s project exciting.
“That’s kind of the buzzword — the holy grail of recirculating systems,” Wurts said.
Algae or bacteria are always present to maintain water quality, while tilapia and brine shrimp are kept in a separate part of the system to harvest excess microbial material, maintaining water quality.
“It’s kind of like its own little designed ecosystem,” Brune said. “We build our sort of own little food chain out there.”
Brune began working with shrimp in 1987, when he was at Clemson University. Brune said that although lots of aquaculture can be grown in a greenhouse, he chose shrimp because it is one of the highest priced products that can be produced in a short amount of time.
He can raise between 15,000-30,000 pounds of shrimp per acre of water every 90-120 days.
Shrimp is the largest-farmed commodity in the world and also has the potential for the greatest environmental impact, Brune said.
Brune said greenhouse and pond production like his own is a necessity that will only increase in importance, whether it produces shrimp, tilapia or any other type of fish.
Jesse Trushenski, an assistant professor with the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Southern Illinois University, said that oceans are at their maximum yield. She said due to the amount of waste and size of land used associated with meat production, emphasizing aquaculture is the only option.
“Not having aquaculture is what’s not sustainable,” Trushenski said. “We’ve shown that the ocean is not a bottomless source of resources…. We’re really good at driving fishery to oblivion.”
Brune said he realizes he is working with a niche market. His process is more involved than pulling shrimp from the bottom of the ocean, and the cost reflects that. He cannot compete with shrimp at $3 per pound, and he isn’t trying to.
Brune said he believes approximately 10 percent of the market would pay a premium for shrimp like his. He said there is precedent for it, citing the sale of higher-priced organic foods in supermarkets.
“The biggest issue of course will be the cost,” Brune said. “The primary reason that the imported shrimp are cheap are that they’re able to do things — with respect to the environment, with respect to workers, with respect to chemicals — that we can’t do in this country.”
Brune said shrimp should be fresh and local.
“We have to go after the fresh market,” Brune said. “Higher value; locally grown; environmentally friendly; better tasting.”
Wurts said he has questions about Brune’s system based on what he has read in press releases.
Wurts said there was a similar greenhouse project near him and it failed to take off. Now it sits abandoned in rural Kentucky, he said.
“Building a one-acre greenhouse would be a massive undertaking from an engineering standpoint alone,” Wurts said. “The cost is getting very expensive.”
Trushenski said although she thinks greenhouse aquaculture is a necessity, she does not think it is any better or worse, sustainability-wise, than ocean production.
“It’s very energetically expensive,” Trushenski said. “Then you have the pipes, the pumps and the tanks.”
Wurts describes himself as a “tree hugger,” but he said it is all relative in terms of which type of production is more sustainable.
Wurts also said he is yet to see a true, zero-exchange system. But he is not stubborn in his beliefs.
“Dr. Brune is a very intelligent man,” Wurts said. “I won’t say that he hasn’t done it.”