Shrimp Grow in Cactus Country

World's hankering for seafood supports new inland industry

The stingy pink soil of Dyer Moore's farm is so dry that even cactuses struggle to survive. But inside his greenhouse, it's another story altogether. The air is tropical, humid, salty, with just a hint of ... could it be shrimp?

Yes, Mr. Moore runs a shrimp hatchery out in the desert of the west Texas.

It's a small operation, with just 3,000 head of shrimp breeding in a handful of homemade tanks. But business is good, and Moore plans to expand in the next few years, dig some ponds, and raise some of the tastiest prawns north of the Pecos.

"Demand for shrimp just keeps going up," says Moore, holding a fidgety three-inch specimen in his thick fingers. "The only way to replenish that resource is through farming."

In an age where the world's appetite for seafood grows faster than nature can replenish, aquaculture outfits like Moore's shrimp farm offer perhaps the best chance of meeting the demand. Shrimp is just one example: In 1980, only 1 percent of the shrimp consumed in the world was farm-raised. Today, that figure is 30 percent. This means big business for farmers like Moore, whether they raise shrimp in Texas or Tanzania, mussels in Scotland, or sole in Spain.

"The amazing thing is that shrimp farmers have dumped 30 percent more shrimp into the market, but the price of shrimp has been constant," says Addison Lawrence, a professor at Texas A&M University's Aquaculture Experimental Station in Port Aransas, Texas. "You would think the price would fall, but it hasn't. Which means the world's consumption has gone up to meet production" of whatever shrimpers and farmers can supply.

All this farm-raised shrimp doesn't come without controversy, however. American shrimpers claim the farmers - mostly scattered in South Carolina, Florida, and the Gulf coast - are stealing away their business. (They needn't worry: US shrimp farmers produce only 3 million pounds of shrimp a year, less than 1 percent of the total American catch of wild shrimp). Environmentalists worry that coastal shrimp farms will threaten the native marshes and bays. Indeed, one of the biggest problems for coastal shrimp farmers are the diseases that can devastate an entire crop virtually overnight.

That's why a growing number of shrimp farmers and other aquaculture efforts are moving much further inland.

"Go inland, and there's no environmental concerns, no diseases, and no exotic species getting mixed in, like you have on the coast," says Dr. Lawrence, who is currently working on a grant to develop an enormous private shrimp farm out in the deserts of Gila Bend, Ariz.

The Texas allure

For his part, Moore says that the desert has been very good to him. Just 45 feet beneath the surface, he has a steady supply of salt water, an aquifer that makes up the remnants of the Permian Sea that covered much of the surrounding countryside more than 100 million years ago. And compared with the pricey plots along the coast that often run about $2,000 an acre, desert land in Grandfalls is cheap, around $50 an acre.

A petroleum engineer by training, Moore moved into aquaculture when the oil boom of the 1980s went bust. Now, business is so good that some of his neighbors are starting to think about selling their cattle and buying some shrimp. Moore calls these folks "tire-kickers," and he tells them it's not as simple as it seems.

"It's not just a matter of digging a hole, filling it with water, and turning these critters loose," he chuckles. "It takes a certain amount of knowledge about what you're doing."

Getting shrimp to mate, for instance, takes more than a dinner and a movie. Shrimp breed at night, and they have little tolerance for disruption. Moore puts the shrimp into an isolated room, where the light turns on during the night and shuts off during the day.

Feeding the 200,000 microscopic larvae from each female requires a special laboratory, where Moore creates a malodorous diet of green algae, then brown algae, then brine shrimp, for each stage of their development.

Even building a tank can have its complications. An earthquake struck on the night he laid the concrete foundation for his main 7,500-gallon tank, leaving the wooden beams and boards slightly askew. Two weeks later, a tornado sucked the plastic lining right out of the tank.

"I told a friend, we're dealing with stuff of biblical proportions," Moore says with a laugh. "Just give us a plague of locusts, and we're all set."

Staying low-tech

Like many start-up businesses, aquaculture attracts a fair collection of con artists, snake-oil salesmen, and other "aqua-sheisters." Many doe-eyed investors go bankrupt within a year, sometimes by expanding too fast, sometimes because of pure ignorance.

Moore doesn't plan to join them.

"If you're going to make it in this business, you have to be low-tech," he says. "You have to get past all the bells and whistles and get down to the art."

"I'd love to have 30 acres of ponds right now," he adds, patting his yellow labrador, Phoebe, who has a stick in her mouth and a game of catch on her mind. "But the advantages of doing this a little bit at a time means that everything is paid for."

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