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Local business aims high with grant funds
Research funding to expand shrimp production project
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Sandra Barbour (left), Hatchery Manager at Virginia Shrimp Farms, and Production Manager Brad Manley examine some of the shrimp grown in a recirculating aquaculture system last week at Blue Ridge Aquaculture. Already a major producer of tilapia, Blue Ridge Aquaculture plans to use funds it will receive through a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to become a commercial producer of white shrimp. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Blue Ridge Aquaculture has ambitious goals for its shrimp production program.

Already a producer of 4 million pounds of tilapia per year, the Martinsville business seeks to replicate that success in the shrimp market. The U.S. consumes more than 1 billion pounds of shrimp per year — 90 percent of which is imported.

“(And) the U.S. has never been a large seafood-consuming country,” Blue Ridge Aquaculture Vice President Jim Franklin pointed out ironically.

Franklin said the long-range goal of Blue Ridge’s Virginia Shrimp Farms project will be to produce 1 million pounds of shrimp per year, which will be sold in the same fresh seafood market — mostly in New England — where the company sells its tilapia.

First, however, Blue Ridge must go from the research and development (R&D) stage to the production stage.

A subsidiary of Blue Ridge, Virginia Shrimp Farms began in 2007 with research and development assistance from Virginia Tech with the goal of becoming a large-scale shellfish producer in a recirculating aquaculture system. Since then, it has worked to “provide necessary research and development prior to the construction of a commercial facility suited for dedicated culture of a specific species,” according to its website.

As part of the R&D process, Blue Ridge will receive a $673,060 matching grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission for staff, supplies and equipment to further develop its recirculating aquaculture system and increase shrimp production, said Blue Ridge Director of Business Development Martin Gardner.

Blue Ridge must match that grant, with the total budget for the R&D project being $1.355 million, Franklin said. Although the grant has been approved by the tobacco commission, some contracts still must be signed.

From the grant-writing stage to the approval, “it’s been about a year-long process,” getting to the current, final stage, Franklin said.

Del. Danny Marshall, a member of the tobacco commisson’s Southside Economic Committee, said when the committee met recently in Wytheville, it considered both the scientific aspects of the plan and its money-making capacity.

“We don’t want to fund phase one if somebody’s already doing phases two, three and four somewhere else,” said Marshall, R-Danville. “The main thing we look at is, can this idea be turned into a viable product that is going to create jobs? Ultimately, that’s what we’re about.”

Franklin said Blue Ridge employs 10 people in its shrimp operation. It will need to increase the staff to about 25 to fully man the research and development program. These jobs will range from basic skilled labor to biologists. An additional facility on Blue Ridge’s property in the Martinsville Industrial Park also will be needed to increase production.

Since recirculating aquaculture involves filtering and re-using water from its tanks rather than pumping out waste and adding more fresh water, Blue Ridge requires more equipment and manpower than typical fisheries to produce its seafood.

“We recycle up to 90 percent of our water,” said Gardner. “We value it and treat it as well as we can. Other aquaculture systems only use it once.”

The remaining 10 percent of wastewater, or effluent, is sent to the Martinsville city treatment system for treatment. Often, other aquaculture systems and fisheries simply release their effluent waste into the environment, Gardner said.

An additional challenge of recirculating aquaculture is keeping the environment clean for the shrimp that live there. Blue Ridge does not use antibiotics to fight disease, Gardner said, so the water must be carefully filtered and measured for temperature and oxygen content.

Though Blue Ridge’s plan is to expand to raising shrimp from its own tanks of mature parents — technically called broodstock, Gardner said — it currently gets shrimp “babies” or postlarvae from the Florida Keys area, and nurses them to adulthood in several stages.

At first, the postlarvae are fed algae in a sterile environment. Before entering the area where the algae are grown, staff must use hand sanitizer and spray their shoes with alcohol. The postlarvae are fed every two hours, and the water is monitored constantly.

“It’s like the history of a patient,” said Virginia Shrimp Farms Hatchery Manager Sandra Barbour. “We monitor them every hour.”

As the shrimp grow to adulthood in about 90 days, Barbour said, they are moved into adult tanks which can hold about 200,000. Right now, the shrimp have to be moved from tank to tank by staff.

Part of the R&D process aims to change that, however. “It’s extremely labor-intensive,” Gardner said. “Eventually, it will be automated.”

The recirculating aquaculture system filters solid waste, dead shrimp and gas such as carbon dioxide from the water. If the system can be further automated to allow shrimp to move from one tank to another throughout the life cycle, it can increase production, Gardner said.

“We’re tweaking and optimizing some parts that we’re developing,” he said. “We’ve brought it down to where it’s a closed system, so the only outside input is the feed.”

“Not only are we developing the tanks for the shrimp to grow it, but we’re developing the process at the same time,” Franklin added.

Marshall said he believes the aquaculture business can accomplish the same level of shrimp production achieved by large-scale poultry operations, which produce the lion’s share of the nation’s chicken and turkey.

“The reason being is that type of agriculture is a very profitable way of running poultry,” he said. “I think the same thing’s going to happen with this.”

Once it is out of the research phase of the shrimp program, Blue Ridge hopes to move its operation to a new location which will be better suited for production and shipping. To get to that point — which Franklin estimates would take roughly $10 million — would require a combination of private capital, donor funding, Blue Ridge’s own funding and “good old-fashioned debt,” Gardner joked.

Until then, the sustainable model begun by Virginia Shrimp Farms with the help of the tobacco commission will help set up the infrastructure for Blue Ridge Aquaculture to increase production, which will lead to its million-pounds-per-year goal, Franklin said. He and Gardner believe that will allow shrimp export to go from Martinsville to the Northeast, West Coast and eventually Europe.

“We do this in poultry; we do it in beef. We can do it in seafood,” Franklin said. “We can supply seafood for this region from this region.”


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