By: Philip Buike*
Home grown shrimp is currently one of the hottest topics in the European Aquaculture sector, this article attempts to explain why this has come about, where the major development is occurring, what technologies are currently being employed and finally, what are the future prospects for this novel industry.
The back story
Without doubt, the culture of warm water shrimp has become, over the last 30 years or so, one of the biggest money makers of all Aquaculture produced species, with some estimates for the world market as high as 50 billion USD by the end of this decade, its big money!
“On the other hand, up until very recently, Europe has not really profited from this boom, as all this shrimp has traditionally been imported from countries located on or close to the Equatorial belt, Ecuador itself being a prime example.”
Last year alone (2021), Europeans spent more than two billion euros on just one species of shrimp, Peneaus vannamei or the Pacific White Shrimp. This currently makes Europe one of the World´s top shrimp consumers along with the USA and China.
Clearly a market as big as this based almost entirely on imports, provided the main impetus for taking the first steps toward home produced shrimp in Europe, initially with P. vannamei but over time P. japonicus, P. monodon and P. stylirostris where also introduced.
There have been attempts to produce warmwater shrimp outside the tropical belt since the early 70´s, the Coca cola Company being one of the first to invest serious money.
Most of the pioneering work took place in the USA, particularly the Harbour Branch Marine Institute (HBMI) in Florida. Other countries such as Japan and Israel also made some important contributions during this initial phase of development.
“However, over the years one critical issue remained unresolved; how do you compete with a 3 USD per kilo cost of production typical of many traditional shrimp producing nations?”
Leading up to the present day, this gulf between production costs between developed and developing nations has not in any way diminished, however in the European market, other factors are coming into play and the hope is that the combined impact of these factors is sufficient to elevate sales price sufficiently to offset the significantly higher costs associated with shrimp culture outside the tropical belt.
Factors currently favoring domestic productions of shrimp in Europe include:
✓ Negative perceptions associated with imported shrimp such as questionable labor practices, environmental degradation, poor hygiene control at the point of processing and the presence of harmful substances in the shrimp tissue,
Note: At this point, I feel that it is very important to point out that the author does not share these views and whose personal experience supports the view that Ecuador at least, produces, processes and exports extremely high-quality shrimp, cultured in a manner that is both ecologically sustainable and respectful of local communities.
✓ Preference for local produce. Carbon footprint is now in the public eye and a significant number of consumers will make purchasing decisions based primarily on this factor.
✓ The possibility of obtaining high quality, fresh shrimp in markets previously starved of any kind of fresh seafood. Coincidently these markets are concentrated in the most affluent parts of the European continent which allows an extra degree of price elasticity.
Also, technical developments in shrimp farming over the last decade or so, are now having a real impact on the ground, these include:
✓ Production systems that can rear shrimp at sufficient densities to be economically viable given European cost profiles, whilst conforming fully to EU environmental protection legislation.
✓ Dramatic improvements in shrimp growth performance through genetic selection by specialized shrimp breeding centers. These are all currently based in Hawaii and US mainland, however both infrastructure and know how exists in Europe to set up breeding centers to provide shrimp broodstock specific to local needs, as and when demand justifies the investment.
✓ Over the past two years, Europe has had its own supply of shrimp larvae from at least one commercial hatchery. This is of critical importance, as prior to this; the development of shrimp farming in Europe was entirely dependent on imports of larvae from the USA. Because of this, there have been at least two documented cases of larvae arriving in Europe infected with a notifiable virus which eventually led to the closure of the farms involved.
As a result of this increasingly favorable climate, small scale pilot ventures where set up in various locations across Europe, Belgium and Switzerland being probably the most notable. These early ventures were all based on a culture system known as Biofloc technology.
This system was originally developed in Israel to produce both shrimp and fish at greater densities than those achieved by the conventional flow through systems of the time, and quickly gained popularity throughout the aquaculture world.
“In greatly simplified terms, the system relies on a specific microbial balance in the tank water to maintain suitable water quality conditions for growth, by using the bacteria themselves as a filter to “mop up” organic waste.”
As the system does not require complex mechanical filtration systems, it is relatively cheap to build and operate (but as we shall see later, cheap does not necessarily mean easy!).
Due to the early success of some of these operations, interest has grown and funds have become available for the growth and development of new operations, which brings up to the present situation in Europe.
Currently we appear to be in the middle of a second wave of investment fueled by the fact that proof of concept has now been provided on European soil, demand for imported shrimp shows no signs of slowing down and as suggested previously, new entrants into the business can now get larvae locally which greatly simplifies the process.
“At the same time, environmental awareness in general has become a key issue and the implications of producing millions of kilos of shrimp in environmentally sensitive areas and then shipping them thousands of kilometers to their final market, has not gone unnoticed, providing a strong motive to provide a locally produced alternative.”
Today, we can see successful operations in Spain, Switzerland, Austria and Germany (amongst others) that have demonstrated that the entire shrimp lifecycle from eggs to adult reproductive stock can be sustained artificially, many kilometers from the nearest natural source of seawater.
In most cases this has been achieved through the application of RAS, a collective term used to describe a group of technologies dedicated to the artificial generation and maintenance of optimum environmental conditions for shrimp growth and development throughout their lifecycle.
Recirculating Artificial Seawater systems (RAS) are now seen by many investors as the key to the future growth of shrimp farming in Europe.
As suggested above, most new ventures seem to be taking the RAS option (Ukrainia and Sweden being the latest examples) as opposed to the Biofloc systems favored by the earlier operations that did manage to demonstrate success. Relative to Biofloc, RAS systems are both far more complex and expensive to build and run, requiring not only highly skilled biologists but also engineers in a range of disciplines to ensure continued operation.
“There must therefore be a good reason for this preference for cost and complexity. To answer this question, we need to look a bit closer at what has actually been the experience of shrimp farming in Europe up to present.”
Initially shrimp farming in Europe was based on what was already known and what was known was that simple Biofloc technology could be adapted to produce shrimp in small scale operations, whose product could be sold successfully in local markets.
Kentucky State University (USA) did much to simplify operations and provide support for a large number of “Ma and Pa” set ups that are now operating throughout the Midwest of the USA (Figure 3).
This model was what was first imported into Europe and we can still see a number of examples today. It has a number of advantages, low initial investment cost and relatively simple operational requirements being I feel the most important.
However, Biofloc is still very much a “black box” affair, being that it is fundamentally based on complex, dynamic microbial population interactions.
The precise mechanisms of these are still lacking and it appears that the system has a definite lifecycle in which after a prolonged period of operation, undesirable bacterial species begin to dominate to the detriment of shrimp health, production levels gradually drop off to sub economic levels and often it is very difficult to reboot the system.
“Until much more is known about the long-term management of Biofloc systems, I feel that scaling up to true commercial levels will be challenging. A secondary problem associated with Biofloc is the production of highly saline sludge that cannot be simply and cheaply disposed of.”
Any large-scale operation will have factor in the cost of dewatering and desalinating sludge as part of the production cost profile, as there is no part of Europe that permits the direct disposal of organically rich, highly saline effluent.
That said, the combination of Biofloc and the hydroponic production of salt resistant vegetables is being trailed in France and elsewhere, time will tell if this novel approach can be scaled up to a commercially viable activity.
Getting back to RAS systems, throughout Europe there is increasing pressure on the fish farming sector improve its effluent control and eliminate wild/captive fish interactions.
Many fish traditionally grown in cages in the sea, from Atlantic salmon in Scotland and Norway, to Gilthead seabream and seabass in the Mediterranean are now coming ashore to be cultured using RAS technology systems.
“In few a few short years, this will move from optional to obligatory, it will be the only way that fish farmers will be able to comply with EU environmental standards. In my view this is a good thing and should be embraced as a positive step toward the future.”
It would be churlish to suggest that RAS has not been without its teething troubles and as I will mention in the following paragraphs, there are still some significant issues to be addressed before this can be considered fully developed for intensive shrimp culture.
That said, there are many examples of well designed and operated RAS systems throughout the world that work and provide an end product whose value exceeds the total cost of inputs. In summary therefore, RAS currently appears to be the technology of choice because:
✓ If correctly designed, built and operated, it is time independent. It will provide the same results in ten years as it did when recently started up. (Biofloc usually starts very well then suffers a performance drop-off after 2-3 years of continual operation.)
✓ A correctly designed RAS should not produce any sludge.
✓ Scaling of RAS systems is a linear operation based on mechanics, scaling of Biofloc (and flow through) is often dependent on non-linear biological interactions which are far more difficult to predict, much less control.
✓ Computer based technology is developing rapidly to provide real time systems for the control of physical parameters.
✓ A well-designed RAS system should have negligible environmental impact, allowing the location of RAS based farms virtually anywhere from city centers to the heart of the Alps.
However, the following areas still require work:
✓ RAS operations have a very high energy demand.
✓ Require highly skilled staff to operate, RAS experts are currently in short supply globally.
✓ Certain modifications are required due to the specific environmental requirements of shrimp, the first of which is to provide sufficient water flow for effective filtration whilst still allowing the shrimp to maintain their position without excessive energy expenditure.
This is not a problem for fish, as increased swimming activity actually improves flesh quality.
✓ Effective removal of dissolved organic material (DOM). DOM is a problem as it provides a readily available nutrient source for bacteria and if uncontrolled can lead to disease outbreaks.
Again, this is more of a problem for shrimp as they have a simple, non-specific immune system that does not allow for vaccine therapy and leaves the shrimp highly vulnerable to some bacterial groups, particularly Vibrio spp.
What is the future of Shrimp farming in Europe?
This is literally, the million(s) dollar question, can shrimp farming in Europe ever be a large scale, profitable enterprise? In the last five years Europe has moved on from, “can it be done?” to “can it be done profitably?” and by profitably, I mean, “can it obtain a rate of return that exceeds alternative investments with a comparable level of risk?”.
To attempt to answer this question I will first describe what I think is not going to happen:
✓ Under the current EU trade situation, Europe will never be a major producer of shrimp. The world market is dominated by a single product, whole frozen 12 – 15 gram white shrimp sold to the consumer at around 10 euros per kilo via supermarket chains.
This is commodity product traded on stock exchanges throughout the world; it has well established supply and does
not suffer seasonality or supply fluctuations due to the vast and interchangeable number of suppliers available. In short, its cheap and its always available, everywhere.
This is a product that European operations cannot provide whilst still hoping to make a profit.
✓ Consolidation of the European industry is not going to happen overnight.
✓ Unless live imports of larvae from the USA are no longer permitted, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain Europe´s disease free status with regard to many of pathogens that have decimated shrimp farming in other parts of the World.
With this in mind of think the most likely future scenario is as follows.
✓ Over the next five years or so, production technology will have developed to a point where operating risk will be considered acceptable. Given that during the same period, RAS technology will also become far more common for the culture of fish in Europe, it is reasonable to assume that shrimp farming in Europe will continue to be at the forefront of RAS technology.
✓ If price wars are to be avoided, then production should be concentrated on a limited luxury market by emphasizing quality, origin and ecological criteria over price. Because of this luxury status, production volumes will naturally be limited by demand at some point.
It will be therefore, important not to fall into the overproduction trap that beset Turbot farming for example, where eventually excess supply depressed price below production costs.
✓ Exportation of European shrimp will be limited unless live shipment to extremely exclusive markets in the Middle East and Asia can be justified by the premium prices obtained.
✓ One area for exportation that might have potential is for broodstock and larvae assuming that Europe´s disease free status is protected.
There are however other interesting possibilities.
Large parts of Southern Europe (Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal) have both land availability and climatic conditions that could support seasonal warm water shrimp production.
Using the model currently employed in Northern Mexico, local hatchery reared larvae could by stocked in cheap plastic covered “nursery ponds” in late spring, these juveniles would then be released at low densities into traditional ponds in summer and harvested before the end of September.
This would be a low cost means of obtaining a high value product from land that was previously considered marginal. Interestingly, currently a penaeid species tolerant to cooler water, P. japonicus is being cultured in open ponds in Southern France.
“Product quality is excellent and there is no problem with consumer acceptance at prices considerably higher than the supermarket alternative.”
At present, this is more of a personal vision than anything else, but it would certainly offer a means of making shrimp culture a mainstream activity, at least in certain areas of Southern Europe.
So, in conclusion, I think that shrimp farming in Europe is here to stay, but whether finally it will be a high-tech based business based close to the urban centers of Northern Europe, a relatively low-tech operation making use of marginal land in the warmer climes of Southern Europe or possibly a combination of both, I cannot say.
I can say with confidence however, that although European shrimp farmers will never compete on the World market, it is possible that over time they will gain a reputation as being amongst some of the most inventive and dedicated operators in this vast and truly diverse branch of aquaculture.
Philip Buike C.V. holds a bachelor’s degree in Fisheries Science from the University of Plymouth and a master’s degree in Aquaculture and Pathology from the University of Stirling. He has over 30 years of industrial experience in shrimp farming and now has his own consultancy company specializing in intensive shrimp farming projects. He built Europe’s only commercial shrimp hatchery in the Austrian Alps and is currently developing two new shrimp hatcheries
in Northern Europe. email@example.com