As Fresh as They Get
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
HURLOCK, Md. -- Scan the brown, bubbling water, and the untrained eye can't see a living thing. "Focus on the edge, on one spot," says Scott Fritze, co-owner of Marvesta Shrimp Farms, an indoor aquaculture facility here. And, sure enough, right where the artificial pond's black plastic liner meets the algae-covered wooden frame, there's one, then another wriggling crustacean on the move.
"It's really neat when you feed them," Fritze says. "Their little legs grab for the food."
Fritze and partners Andrew Hanzlik and Guy Furman, all 27, are forerunners in the brave new world of indoor shrimp farming. The vast majority of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from Asian coastal farms that environmentalists say damage coastlines and threaten wildlife, such as sea turtles. But this trio thinks its technologically advanced system of producing a sustainable supply of fresh shrimp year-round in a non-polluting environment may represent the future source of America's favorite seafood -- or at least earn the partners a tiny piece of the market.
They'll have plenty of competition, not just from the frozen imports but, soon enough, from a much larger indoor shrimp-farming facility being built in Virginia.
The three men started small. In 2003, they broke ground and built the first of five hoop-style greenhouses, covered in white polyvinyl, on a five-acre plot surrounded by cornfields in Hurlock, 17 miles east of Easton. Inside are the saltwater ponds, most 140 feet long, 30 feet wide and an average five feet deep, each stocked with shrimp in different stages of development -- from tiny post-larvals to jumbos that are eight inches long, ready for the saute pan.
Furman, with a master's degree in biology and environmental engineering from Cornell University, brought to the project a science background and his thesis on shrimp farming. His childhood pal, Fritze, met Hanzlik at Bucknell University, where each received a business degree. They put together the corporate and development plan.
"We didn't have experience," says Fritze, who like Hanzlik was otherwise headed for Wall Street. "But we did have passion and diligence and saw an opportunity to pioneer this business."
These days, most often dressed in wet suits, all three are up to their necks in shrimp.
The men will not share details on how they heat, circulate, filter and oxygenate the water or how they keep their facility bio-secure. The shrimp are nourished on a fortified, soy-based feed. Fritze will say that there were "not fun years where we were pushed to the edge with peaks and valleys," dealing with power outages, heating failures and water quality issues. Now they are satisfied with their system, which they say is completely recirculating, with no waste products. Water is trucked in from the ocean. And because Marvesta is inland, there is no chance of discharge into waterways.
When Hanzlik grabs a pole net and scoops deep beneath the brackish surface, out come dozens of the creatures, which contract their tail muscles and spring two to three feet in the air. They are a disease-resistant species, L itopenaeus vannamei, commonly referred to as white shrimp because of their color.
Last year, Marvesta's first in commercial production, the men produced 10,000 pounds of medium and large shrimp and sold them, hours after scooping them from the tanks, to 15 high-end restaurants from Easton to Annapolis. At an average $10 per pound retail, prices are comparable to domestic, previously frozen, wild-caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. In the past two months, though, demand has exceeded the supply, and they have stopped, for the time being, taking on new restaurant clients or accepting mail orders at their Web site, http:/
Says Fritze: "The market is starved for a fresh producer of shrimp." How starved? It's safe to say that most people in this country have never eaten a fresh shrimp.