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According to the latest statistics, shrimp is the most popular seafood import in the United States. A whopping 4.2 pounds of the briny crustaceans were consumed, per person, in 2011 alone. Even more surprising, the majority of the shrimp consumed in the United States comes from Asia and Latin America.

It may surprise you to know that these statistics play a heavy role in bringing salt water shrimp farming to New Mexico. But to completely understand the importance of shrimp farming to New Mexico, one has to first consider its links to the cotton industry. Yes, the cotton industry.

Located just a few miles south of Las Cruces, surrounded by pecan trees and verdant fields, is the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center, an offshoot of New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. There Dr. Tracey Carrillo, senior program manager, and his student researchers are hard at work finding viable alternatives for the use of cotton seed.

Though cotton is best known for its fibrous qualities, the seed itself has long been regulated as a food product for cattle. As the world’s population continues to rise, the question of where to find more food sources for humanity has prompted researchers like Carrillo to explore options.

From that research has come a wide variety of uses for cotton seed, including cooking oil, biofuel and even soap. By far the most exciting work is being done on glandless cotton, which is derived from a variety that is native to New Mexico. Most cotton seed varieties contain a gland that produces a toxin which, until recently, only cattle could tolerate. The introduction of the glandless cotton has made it possible to experiment with the seed as a food source for other species.

“We’ve got a lot of different kinds of research going on here using a naturally occurring plant derived from the Acala variety that can be used for human consumption, which escalates its value,” Carrillo said. “In fact, through the work we’re doing here, the seed is now probably more valuable than the fiber.”

Once hulled, the glandless cotton seed is very similar to a piñon nut. From it, the food technology department at NMSU has been experimenting with baked goods such as brownies, crackers and bread, all of which are gluten free and contain no cholesterol. According to Carrillo, the whole kernels have a high value, because they can compete in the nut market. The fragments, however, are where the experimentation diverges.

“The fragments are made into a meal or a flour that can be used not only for cooking, but also for aquaculture feed,” Carrillo said. “All the fish farms throughout the world use a fish meal, which is basically ground up fish with a few vitamins formed into a pellet form, to feed their stock. We’re replacing the fish meal protein with cotton seed protein. Right now, fish meal is running about $1,200 a ton, while cotton seed is going for about $300 a ton at dairies. If we can bring that price point to aquaculture, it’s going to help not only the cotton growers, but fish farmers, too.”

That, in a nutshell, or a cotton seed hull as the case may be, is how NMSU finds itself host to the very first salt water shrimp farm in New Mexico.

In a building at the Science Center dedicated to seed certification, cotton research, biodiesel experimentation and other cotton-related activities, is a room set aside for aquaculture research. It is here that a large plastic swimming pool has been set up with a huge generator that pumps air into the carefully regulated salt water and a propeller that acts as a mixer to keep the water agitated — The perfect soup for growing salt water shrimp.

“We’ve been growing them for about a year now,” Carrillo said. “The idea was sort of a joint effort with our funding agency, Cotton Incorporated. We’ve been exploring ways to exploit the cotton seed and a protein replacement for aquaculture is one way we can do that. It’s a new industry that could be an economic boost to New Mexico. If we can get the shrimp industry started here, ultimately it’s going to help the cotton growers become more profitable.”

Because it is still a fledgling enterprise, there is currently only one pool in operation at the center, overseen by Fish & Wildlife undergrad Garrett Lee. Even so, that one pool contains 6,000 gallons of water and is home to anywhere from 15,000 to 18,000 shrimp.

The 6,000 gallon pool where the shrimp are raised. “It looks dirty, but the shrimp love it,” Carrillo said. The water quality is tested regularly for bacteria, nitrates, ammonium and ph levels, “to make sure the quality stays high.”

The 6,000 gallon pool where the shrimp are raised. “It looks dirty, but the shrimp love it,” Carrillo said. The water quality is tested regularly for bacteria, nitrates, ammonium and ph levels, “to make sure the quality stays high.”

“This tank should produce 600 to 800 pounds in about six months,” Lee said. “A four shrimp per gallon ratio is what we try to run.”

“By doing it indoors, you can get two crops per year,” Carrillo added. “If we were to replicate it in, say, 10 pools, we could conceivably get a new crop every month.”

As the experimentation continues, and by all accounts the cottonseed protein is an excellent replacement for fish meal, the question arises: What to do with all the shrimp that are being produced?

“That’s a problem,” Carrillo said. “We couldn’t sell them at first because the New Mexico Environmental Department didn’t have any regulatory policies or guidelines to sell shrimp in New Mexico. We’ve been jumping through all these hoops to come up with the paperwork.”

In the end, the NMED simply decreed that the researchers could eat the shrimp themselves until a policy was established, with the proviso that if anybody became ill, they would have to step in. To date, not one illness has been reported.

“We’ve got an electrician who is a Cajun from Louisiana and he said they taste just like Gulf shrimp,” Carrillo said. “Right now, we’re almost sick of eating shrimp, but we just got approval from the regulatory people a month ago. Now we can sell them. We just have to work out a few details, but we’re really close.”

The timing couldn’t be better for a market in need of change. Currently, 90 percent of the shrimp consumed by Americans is shipped in from other countries, where a heavy handed use of chemicals and antibiotics has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and chemical residues on the product itself. Hardly the organic seafood most people are expecting when they order their meal. The resulting backlash, though not exactly crippling, is still worrisome. Because of that, many local restaurants who have gotten wind of NMSU’s efforts in shrimp farming have professed interest.

“The Double Eagle and a few other restaurants locally have expressed interest in buying locally grown New Mexico shrimp, instead of something from Indonesia or Thailand,” Carrillo said. “It floors me how they can take a shrimp out of a pond over there and preserve it for the long haul to get it here. And we think they taste good with all those chemicals in them.”

Because of this interest, the current plan is to parlay the shrimp production into a viable cash crop. The only problem is, farming shrimp is not cheap. The agitator pump alone cost the researchers $8,000. Lee is currently working on a new prototype that will cost closer to $800.

The shrimp nursery, where tiny post-larvae are kept while the salinity level is brought down from ocean level, about 32 parts per thousand, to a more manageable 15 parts per thousand. The process takes approximately 14 days, at which time the shrimp are transferred to the big pool.

The shrimp nursery, where tiny post-larvae are kept while the salinity level is brought down from ocean level, about 32 parts per thousand, to a more manageable 15 parts per thousand. The process takes approximately 14 days, at which time the shrimp are transferred to the big pool.

“If we can get it to the point that a complete set up costs about $1,000 per pool, then this industry should be able to take off,” Carrillo said. “Right now, it’s a little expensive. It takes somebody with deep pockets, or a research project, to get something like this going. If we were to do this on our own, we’d probably still be tweaking it. As it is, we’re hoping it’ll be commercial as soon as next year.”

In fact, a larger building is being readied on campus for a more full-scale operation, once the prototype has been completed. Carrillo foresees a time when there are 12 pools going at one time. Cotton Incorporated, the funding agent for most of the cotton research taking place at NMSU, and the NMED have both committed to helping Carrillo turn salt water shrimp farming into a viable food source option.

“It all goes back to cotton,” Carrillo said. “We’re doing this, primarily, for the cotton industry. The cotton seed will have way more value than the shrimp. We’re looking at taking a byproduct and adding a dollar per pound to it. Somebody growing shrimp and using the cotton seed, it makes them more profitable. Plus, it’s a novelty project. Nobody else is growing saltwater shrimp in New Mexico. In the U.S. there are maybe five locations that are farming them indoors in swimming pools as a year-round facility. That makes us unique.”

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