A new industry for the Caribbean: lobster farming

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On this remote eastern Caribbean island, there is a new "lobster farm" that does more than just produce a costly food item. It has been designed specifically to introduce mari- culture -- the farming of the sea -- to isolated countries in the largely undeveloped Caribbean basin.

That's why, at Lobster Farms Ltd., the emphasis has been on using local materials and labor and on taking full advantage of the bountiful supply of warm , unpolluted water that is everywhere in the Caribbean. Methods that would seem primitive in the United States have been used here; absolute efficiency is a bit less important to the islands than self-sufficiency.

The Caribbean is a geographically and culturally disparate region with 15 million people scattered throughout 32 countries and thousands of islands. Many nations are beset by unemployment, poverty, and a trade deficit since they have no viable industry beyond scattered tourism. Although there are a few isolated mariculture operations in the US virgin Islands (where tilapia are raised), Grand Caymans (turtles), and Dominica (prawns), Lobster Farms is the first operation devoted to spreading the mariculture industry itself throughout the region.

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"What we are selling here is not lobster -- it is lobster farms," explains Robert Sanders, an Anguilla banker and owner of Aquaculture Services Ltd., the operating company. "Aquaculture is an industry that we fell can make as big an impact in the Caribbean as sugar once did." Mr. Sanders selected aquaculture because it met certain needs peculiar to the islands. "We needed an industry that would import no raw materials, that had a technology easily transferable to locals, and that created a product so valuable that the market would come to the island," he explains. With lobsters retailing for $25 a pound in Japan, this particular enterprise seemed a potentially profitable proposition.

Anguilla, which voted to return to the British Commonwealth after several decades of relative independence, embodies many typical features of the needier Caribbean nations. Its 36 square miles of sand-covered limestone and white, palm-rimmed beaches support meager agriculture, fishing, and tourism industries and little else. Although nearby "developed" islands such as St. Martin rely on a healthy tourist trade to bolster their economies, many of Anguilla's 6,500 residents depend on a "remittance economy" in which family members leave the island to work.

There is no fresh-water supply on the island, and the country's overtaxed generators offer an uneven energy supply at best.

To adapt to these limitations, Lobster Farms has been developed with a "third world technology" that could be transferable anywhere in the Caribbean, according to Sterling Wadley, a Utah biologist hired to run the program."US technology just won't work here," Mr. Wadley says. "You can't keep a pump going , let alone a computer-operated gantry system for grow-out."

Lobster Farms has its own seven-kilowatt diesel generator, and the island power is generally regarded as a supplementary system. Water is gathered in roof cisterns for industrial and personal use. Seawater used in the open culturing system is collected in a ditchlike reservoir after percolating through a natural sand filtration system with each rise of the tide. A tin roof over the reservoir cools the water and an evaporation tower will enhance that effect. Inside the hatchery handmade insulated wooden cold boxes function as large coolers to lower the ambiant room temperature for early grow-out stages. Polypropolene milk bottles are even cut to serve as spawning trays for the female lobster.

Beyond its third-world orientation, the program is also unusual in that it cultures the meatier New England (American) lobster instead of the local clawless spiny.Extensive research already carried out under the sea grant program at Scripps Institute indicates that the cold-water American lobster can withstand temperatures up to 70 degrees F. In fact, lobsters cultured in the heated effluent of California power plants actually grew twice as fast as those in cooler waters. Since the year-round water temperatures of the Caribbean are closer to 80 degrees F., efforts have to be made to cool them for culturing.

"It's a lot easier for us her to lower the temperature by 10 degrees than it is for them to raise it by 30 degrees in the States," says Mr. Wadley.

He also figures that it is easier for the hatchery to bring in egg-bearing females than to endure the lengthy and irregular breeding process. Since one female may hold from 5,000 to 20,000 eggs, several lobsters can supply an entire hatchery with larvae without costly shipping charges.

The egg-bearing females, imported from Canada, usually spawn in late spring or fall, although hatching can be delayed or speeded by manipulating temperature and intervals of light and darkness. After hatching, the tiny, barely visible, free-swimming larvae are collected and placed in circulating tanks called kreisals where they complete the four larvae stages in about two weeks. During this time, the larvae are fed brine shrimp cultured in outdoor tanks and in an adjacent tidal salt pond.

At the end of the larval stages, the miniature lobsters become voracious for their favorite food -- other miniature lobsters. To combat the cannibalism, the animals are raised to adult sizes in a semicommunal system that allows for some mortality. Wadley has designed wooden tanks with protective habitats that hold no more than 10 lobsters each.As the lobsters mature, temperatures, which were 55 degrees F. in the holding tanks, are gradually increased to 70 degrees for a grow-out system.

The entire process, from egg to export, can be compressed into about 18 months if the adults are sold at less than a pound, Mr. Wadley says. Anguilla, like other remote islands, has a small air strip linking it with international air strips scattered around the Caribbean, and allowing FOB air freight shipments to buyers.

Because of third-world innovations and the lower prevailing wages in a labor intensive operation, start-up costs for the farm are closer to $1.5 million than the $5 million that Scripps estimates for US farms. That also reduces the unit cost for each lobster from $3.50 to about $1.10, using the results of a computer simulation with an 80,000-pounds-per-month production rate. However, Mr. Sanders says the farm will spend closer to $2 an animal to produce a more workable 30,000 pounds per month output when lobster begin maturing late next year.

Concurrent culture of other species, in addition to brine shrimp, is already planned so as to make optimum use of the hatchery and grow-out facilities.

"There's nothing I wouldn't consider here," says biologist Wadley. The most likely species are shrimp, red snapper, and the colorful marine tropical fish that grow in profusion on reefs around the island. "It would be a shame to ignore any possibilities in an environment like Anguilla," he adds.

In fact, it is the healthy ecosystem and the lack of government interference that should make much of the Caribbean attractive to mariculturists. "In California, you've got 64 government regulations to deal with before you're entitled to do anything on the coastline," says Mr. Sanders. "And every project I've ever seen fail in the States has done so because of administrative or political reasons." In addition to having no bureaucratic red tape to muddle through, Anguilla has no income or corporate taxes. "We didn't even need a building permit to construct the hatchery," says Mr. Sanders.

To keep the project as "pure" as possible, he also has eschewed any help from the Caribbean Development Bank, or any Caribbean aid that may trickle down from the Reagan administration. "They're trying to do it from the top down," he says of the foreign aid that most islanders never expect to see. "We're doing it from the bottom up."

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