The Shrimp Industry Is Dirty. Can New Farming Technology Clean It Up?

A pile of locally farmed shrimp

[Photographs: Emily Dryden, unless otherwise noted]

America has a shrimp problem.

We eat more shrimp than any other kind of seafood, and, for many of us, it's the only seafood we consume. It’s easy to understand why: Shrimp is sweet, versatile, and, thanks to massive farming operations in Southeast Asia, one of the cheapest proteins in the freezer aisle.

But, while we might not pay much for our shrimp, recent reports have shown it comes at enormous cost. The same farms that make bottomless shrimp baskets possible are also responsible for the devastation of ecosystems that are important for the entire globe, and the industry as a whole is rife with human rights abuses, like slavery, child labor, and murder.

If you find those facts unpalatable, you’re not alone. Over the last three decades, scientists and entrepreneurs have tried to find an alternative to farmed shrimp that’s both sustainable and scalable enough to be competitive with those toxic operations abroad. And even though every single effort so far has failed, there’s one man who believes he’s finally done the impossible.

Depending on whom you ask, Jean Claude Frajmund is either the guy who's going to bring about a radical shift in shrimp farming or the latest in a long line of naively ambitious aquaculturists. Investors in his company, Eco Shrimp Garden, are confident enough to have bet $25 million on the former, and chefs are hopeful, with several describing Frajmund’s shrimp as nothing short of life-changing. But at least one leading expert is highly skeptical, calling Frajmund’s claims “meaningless,” and consumers—well, consumers are part of the problem Frajmund is trying to solve. Relatively few people have heard about the issues with shrimp, or thought about seeking a sustainable alternative. But if Frajmund succeeds, that could all change.

The Rise of Cheap Shrimp

A row of head-on shrimp on a wooden surface

Shrimp wasn’t always such a fraught industry. As Paul Greenberg notes in his book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, less than a century ago, shrimp was little more than a niche foodstuff in America, consumed mostly by fishermen and Chinese immigrants living near the docks of cities like San Francisco and New Orleans. But advances in shelling and freezing technology in the mid-1940s made it possible to transport then-plentiful American stock around the country. Most notably, it paved the way for Red Lobster to offer popcorn shrimp nationwide. Soon, the wildly popular unlimited shrimp buffet gave way to greater consumer demand for shrimp and, in turn, overfishing. By the 1980s, corporations had begun looking exclusively abroad for enough product to meet the expectations of consumers who had come to believe scampi should be cheap, no matter where they were in the country.

But a problem was on the horizon. This first boom had been made possible in part by importing shrimp from early farms in Taiwan and Central America, which had discovered that the tiger prawn could grow fast and massive in high-density environments. Nobody anticipated that the species was also highly susceptible to diseases like vibriosis and yellow head, which, by 1990, were wiping out entire farming operations in a matter of days.

Just as some farms were succumbing to disease, an ostensibly hardier species, called the whiteleg shrimp or Pacific white shrimp, was identified along the Pacific coastline of the Americas, and exported to nascent operations in Southeast Asia. There was already a long tradition of farming shrimp in the miles of mangrove forests along the coastlines of Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and thanks to the shrimp and an abundance of cheap labor, production exploded. The combination proved so successful that today, over 80% of all farmed stock is whiteleg shrimp, and most of it is produced in Southeast Asia. Unless you’ve sought out rarer varieties, like wild shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico or the spot prawns that show up on sushi menus, it is possible that this is the only shrimp you’ve ever eaten.

A raw head-on shrimp lying on a black plate

Unfortunately, whiteleg shrimp were still vulnerable to infection, but this was easily solved in a region with relatively little government oversight. Farms turned to filling their ponds with antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, and other disinfectants as a solution, polluting both the shrimp and the once-healthy waterways they occupied. This destructive practice continues to this day: When one operation becomes too toxic, it’s simply abandoned; more mangroves are cleared down the coast, and the cycle begins anew.

Nearly one-fifth of the world’s mangrove forests have already been devastated by commercial shrimping, and while to Westerners this might sound like an awful but distant problem, the implications are global, and disastrous. Mangroves consume and store five times more carbon dioxide than any other type of forest, and they also create a formidable natural barrier against flooding. As a result, they’re one of the most important natural defenses we have against both climate change and rising sea levels. In addition, mangroves directly ensure food security for billions of people in developing countries by providing a nursery for countless species of animals that are vital to the ecosystems that sustain them, says Alfredo Quarto, the head of the nonprofit Mangrove Action Project. “Not recognizing these threats now,” he said, “will be costly, perhaps catastrophically so, for the whole human race.”

But in fact, the industry has already directly created humanitarian crises. As domestic demand for shrimp has grown, intentionally opaque supply chains have created a system in which even the companies importing shrimp know little about its origins, giving rise to one of the most robust slave-labor industries in the world. Over the last 20 years, tens of thousands of migrants from Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere have been tricked and trafficked onto boats and into processing plants, where they’re routinely beaten and often killed while trying to produce enough to fill that 80-count bag of frozen shrimp. Many of them are women and children.

Variety of frozen shrimp brands

A variety of frozen shrimp brands.

In 2017, the United States imported more than 600,000 metric tons of farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia, an all-time high worth close to $6 billion. And, despite regulatory changes intended to eliminate both slavery and toxic product from the supply chain, the scale of the problem is such that complete transparency is impossible. Last year, a spokeswoman for the FDA told Vogue that the agency is capable of inspecting only about 2% of all seafood imported into the country, most of which is shrimp.

Until the last decade, most Americans didn't have a good alternative to the farmed, imported stuff, even if they wanted one. Locally harvested wild stock, most of which comes from the Gulf, is both rapidly diminishing and dogged by reports of trawling nets catching and killing other kinds of important marine life, including endangered species of sea turtles. Early homegrown farms fizzled due to labor costs and technological issues. But a possible solution has recently emerged, one that you may have already seen at your local farmers market or fancy grocery store. And, while Frajmund hopes this story will end with his operation, it actually began in 2010, in an unlikely place: the tiny town of Fowler, Indiana, the birthplace of an innovation that many hope will bring about a sea change in the shrimping industry.

Searching for an Alternative

An Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp (top) and a frozen-and-defrosted imported shrimp (bottom)

An Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp (top) and a frozen, then defrosted imported shrimp (bottom).

The small quantities of “sustainable shrimp” that have been popping up in the fresh-seafood sections of landlocked states around the country are invariably the same whiteleg species you’ll find in the freezer aisle: about the size of a wine key, with a speckled, translucent carapace and maybe some pink around the tail and tendrils. The only identifiable differences are their heads, which remain attached, and their exorbitant price tag: around $25 per pound,* or roughly three times the price of imported product.

* The Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp purchased for the photography for this piece are priced at $38 per pound.

They’re grown by people like Frajmund, and if you ask about the cost, they’ll tell you their operations’ carbon footprint is virtually zero, the shrimp are produced by American workers paid a living wage, and, like all fresh seafood, they taste substantially better than their frozen brethren. (You can also get more out of them by eating the heads, or saving them with the shells for stocks and infused oils.) But whether you’ve found them in North Dakota or Minnesota, they are always connected to one woman: Karlanea Brown.

Brown and her husband run a company called RDM Shrimp in the rolling farmland just outside Fowler. As her 19-tank shrimp aquaculture operation beeped in the background, Brown told me over the phone about how they got started: A fast-talking salesman sold her husband on the promise of shrimp aquaculture, claiming that with six tanks, each the size of an aboveground swimming pool, they could produce 500 pounds of shrimp their first cycle. When her husband proved uncharacteristically hopeless at setting up the system. she pushed him out of the way, dialed their son’s chemistry teacher, and had everything running in an hour.

An early shrimp aquaculture setup used by Eco Shrimp Garden, with the company's staff (including Jean Claude Frajmund) standing nearby with nets

An early aquaculture pool setup used by Eco Shrimp Garden. Jean Claude Frajmund is the man with the net on the left. [Photograph courtesy of Eco Shrimp Garden]

At the time, neither of them realized that the technology, despite roots in several decades of aquaculture research, was in its infancy when it came to commercial use. They’d assumed there were already hundreds of operations like theirs in the country. “We were a little shocked when we found out we were the third,” she says.

Their system continues to be relatively low-tech. “It’s basically just a swimming pool with PVC pipes,” which constantly recirculate microorganism-filled water known as biofloc, Brown says. Those microorganisms detoxify the shrimp’s waste, repackaging it into nutrients that help them thrive.

In those early days, they were told that a high concentration of biofloc—60 milligrams per liter—was required for optimal growth. Despite their watchful eye, even the consultant couldn’t explain why they produced only 20 pounds of shrimp after their first cycle. That first year, they lost over a million shrimp.

As often happens, a mistake led to the pivotal breakthrough. One day, Brown left the filtration tanks running too long, which plunged the bacterial concentration to a mere one milligram per liter. But instead of dying en masse, the shrimp grew to adulthood 30 days faster, and proved healthier to boot. Brown soon expanded her family’s business model, working with farmers around the world as a consultant to help them implement the new system.

It began as a way to increase profitability, but the more Brown traveled, the more she became aware of the issues surrounding imported shrimp. Most vividly, she recalls visiting a shrimp operation in Vietnam where gasoline was leaking directly into the pond. “We sell to America,” its owner said, “because they’ll eat anything.”

“I just thought, ‘You know, there’s got to be a better way,’” she says. “That’s when we started really promoting more of the sustainable indoor farming.”

Today, there are 33 operations around the United States that use Brown’s system, and by the end of this year, she’ll have set up farms in nine countries, including Russia, India, and Peru. (The company that initially set Brown up is now defunct.) Her consulting and setup fees account for about half the business’s revenue; the rest comes from the 500 pounds of shrimp they grow themselves each month, which she says draws customers from up to four hours away.

Frozen, then defrosted imported shrimp (left) and Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp (right)

Frozen, then defrosted imported shrimp (left) and Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp (right).

Critically, they also maintain no licenses over the technology they’ve developed, since Brown’s main goal is exposing more people around the country to an alternative to imported shrimp, which would address the biggest issue for both Brown and her clients.

“Most people don’t know the difference between what we’re raising and what they’re buying in a grocery store,” she says, which means they're unlikely to pay a premium for it. As a result, RDM and other farms find themselves facing a conundrum: Without demand, there’s no viable way to scale up production, but without scaling up production, it’s impossible to lower the price, and thereby increase demand.

This doesn’t seem to bother Brown, who believes that, eventually, informed consumers across the board will be willing to shell out a few dollars more for a tastier, cleaner product. And for now, she’s content being the person who spreads that knowledge.

“Do I want [people] to stop eating shrimp?” Brown says. “Heck no. I just want them to know what they’re eating.”

Even when they do know, however, it's unclear whether an individual making more informed—and expensive—choices for their shrimp dinners does anything to address the problem. Bob Fischer, a professor of philosophy at Texas State University who studies the ethical issues related to food, explains that our individual decisions in the grocery store or at the farmers market aren’t likely to meaningfully change the industry. There is, however, a moral argument for spending more money on shrimp in order to support sustainable-shrimp producers, with the goal of helping them to rival the commercial shrimping industry abroad.

“But that justification only works if we think that sustainable shrimp is actually going to be achievable in the developed world in a way that will allow Walmart to be carrying cheap, frozen, humanely produced, and slavery-free shrimp,” Fischer says. “And I think there are real reasons to worry about that.”

A Dose of Skepticism

Clockwise from top left: Whole Foods frozen wild-caught pink shrimp; Whole Foods frozen farmed white shrimp; head-on, defrosted, previously frozen imported farmed shrimp; Kirkland frozen white shrimp. Center: Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp

Clockwise from top left: Whole Foods frozen wild-caught pink shrimp; Whole Foods frozen farmed white shrimp; defrosted, previously frozen head-on imported farmed shrimp; Kirkland frozen white shrimp. Center: Eco Shrimp Garden shrimp.

For starters, there are the limitations to Brown’s technology. Although it's the most popular and most proven sustainable-shrimping system to date, at least one expert claims that it will never be enough to solve the problem she has identified.

“It’s a great platform for learning, but just not a particularly scalable technique,” says David Brune, a lifelong aquaculture researcher and professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Missouri. Brown’s technology can increase production only through building more indoor tanks, which require constant monitoring and upkeep from well-paid workers, bringing production costs to about $9 per pound. Farms in Southeast Asia have miles of coastline and cheap labor, which bring those costs down to about $3 per pound. In a best-case scenario where demand suddenly skyrockets, even Brown acknowledges she could shave only a few dollars off her costs, and a genuinely competitive alternative would need to be substantially cheaper.

Brune has developed what he calls a truly scalable way to grow shrimp, which involves partitioned ponds and the simultaneous cultivation of tilapia to create an ecosystem that’s both symbiotic and hyper-productive. His research has been funded by the likes of the USDA, and the system is currently capable of producing eco-friendly shrimp at about $5 per pound. But even Brune has never scaled up, due to both insufficient demand and the complete lack of infrastructure to support a sudden increase in American shrimp production.

Raw shrimp

“My technique is something that’s on the ground floor of an industry that hasn’t really launched yet,” he says. “These shrimp farmers, if they were producing a million pounds tomorrow, what would they do with those shrimp? Where would they take them? How would they handle them? Would they process them? If they process them, then they’re no longer a farm—they’re a processing plant, and they gotta have a license and inspections. And then would they freeze them? If they froze them, they’d have to be competitive with the low price of imported shrimp. If they just kept them on ice, they’d have to have some kind of system to rapidly market them and maintain high quality.”

In other words, there’s just no obvious way for American farmers to unseat Asian competitors overnight, and even in the longer term, that path is filled with dozens of potential supply-chain potholes, any number of which could completely derail a promising operation. The best-case scenario, Brune believes, is that labor inevitably becomes more expensive around the world, making imported shrimp pricier, while American shrimp producers gradually grow strong and smart enough to reliably lower their costs.

“Eventually,” says Brune, “our prices will meet somewhere in the middle.”

The Promise, and Perils, of Disruption

Three head-on shrimp on a black plate

Jean Claude Frajmund was attending culinary school in New York City when he read an article about indoor shrimp farming. Food was a new venture for him, but he’d arrived in the US from his native Brazil after a winding career that included stints as a computer programmer, documentary filmmaker, and educational consultant, so making unexpected shifts in vocation was kind of his thing. After a year of research, he contacted RDM Shrimp, which helped him establish his operation in a former mattress factory in the nearby town of Newburgh, New York.

He quickly expanded, and received glowing coverage from outlets like NPR and Vogue, as well as sell-out demand from customers at local farmers markets and high-end restaurants. When I asked Charlie Marshall, the chef behind Manhattan restaurants Dianne & Elisabeth and The Marshal, whether he’d consider using any other product, he sounded legitimately baffled.

“Hell no,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

John Daley, the chef at Mayanoki, a sushi restaurant in Manhattan, claims there is something special about the product itself. “I’ve had so much raw shrimp in my life, and I haven’t had any that I enjoy more than his,” he says, adding that Frajmund’s product is as sweet and tender as the rarest stuff he can get from California or Japan.

Three cooked head-on shrimp on a plate, with a lemon wedge

But despite all that acclaim, Frajmund has bigger goals. He says it rapidly became evident that RDM’s technology could produce top-tier shrimp, but would never be scalable enough to change the industry. Along with his production manager, a former trout farmer named John Wallace, he began to devise a wholly new system.

They were soon approached by Capergy, a French company that formerly specialized in the production of diesel and natural gas plants and now focuses exclusively on renewable energy. Capergy offered to include them as one spoke in a broader $800 million investment project in Maine, where it's creating a biomass power plant at an abandoned industrial site and channeling the excess electricity into sustainable production methods. Construction is ongoing, and Frajmund tells me it’ll be completed by the end of summer 2018. He claims he’s currently capable of growing 10,000 pounds of shrimp each year. Fahim Samaha, the CEO of Capergy, says they’re aiming to produce nearly half a million pounds within the next 36 months.

But when I asked for more details about the technology, Frajmund and Samaha were both light on the specifics, though they offered me a tour of the facility once it’s completed. They said that the aquaculture techniques used will be totally different from those popularized by Brown, and, while both systems rely on biofloc, what’s truly game-changing about this new project is the infrastructure that will accompany it. The operation in Maine will be the first in a series of standardized facilities that are close enough to the major metropolitan areas in which Frajmund intends to sell his product fresh, eliminating any need for a processing plant. That standardization will make it possible to train employees at one farm, then transplant them to another thousands of miles away. To ensure quality, the facilities will be wirelessly connected to make remote monitoring possible. Once there’s proof of concept and the production is far enough along, Frajmund also claims that he’ll make it an open-source technology—taking a cue from Tesla—to usher in a new era of sustainable shrimp production.

It sounded impressive, but when I brought it up later with Brune, the agricultural engineering professor, he groaned.

“This is nonsense as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It just sounds like the same old thing.”

Shelling cooked head-on shrimp

It’s worth remembering that Brune has ostensibly competitive technology. But, by way of example, he points to Blue Oasis Shrimp Farm in Nevada. Blue Oasis was a $5 million, 30,000-square-foot operation in North Las Vegas founded in 2011, and briefly touted as the symbol of an initiative to turn the district into a center for sustainable development. Six months into production, the mayor served Blue Oasis shrimp at his annual address, and 17 high-end restaurants along the Strip offered it on their menus. Similar to Eco Shrimp, part of its promise was that its proximity to so many eager consumers meant it could never fail.

“And then they just disappeared,” he says. “No one ever heard anything again. That’s very common. Not just in shrimp aquaculture, but aquaculture in general. That’s been going on for 30 years. As long as I’ve been working in aquaculture, that’s something that’s been happening.”

Sure enough, within less than a year, the entire operation collapsed, for reasons still unclear, and the Kansas bank that had partially financed it was forced to foreclose on the property.

If his system proves to be all that he says it is, it’s possible that Frajmund could bring about a sustainable-shrimping revolution. At present, there’s no evidence other than Frajmund’s word to support his claim that, despite the fact that dozens of people have tried and failed before, this time will be different. But though Frajmund’s relative lack of experience with aquaculture might not seem promising, it may predispose him to take the kinds of personal and professional risks that other, more seasoned hands might not take, ones that could lead to a world-changing breakthrough. After all, much of what we take for granted today was built and improved upon by people like Frajmund—newcomers to industries, whose competitive advantage was that they believed themselves capable of the impossible. What’s the harm in hoping he succeeds?