Shrimp News Interviews Alexander deBeausset
At the Tenth Central American Aquaculture Symposium (Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 27–29, 2014), I interviewed Alexander deBeausset, known as “Zandy”, Vice President of Production and Operations at Acuamaya, Guatemala’s largest shrimp farm.
Shrimp News: I heard that you were born in Taiwan. How did that happen?
Alexander deBeausset: My father, a chemical engineer, was born in Russia, part of the French population that got established there during the Napoleonic Era (18th Century), which is why I have a French last name. During the Bolshevik red wars in 1918, he fled Russia and immigrated to the United States. He met my mother, who was from Michigan, in college. They got married and took off for India, where he managed fertilizer plants for an engineering company named “Intercontinental Corp.”. That’s where my older sister, Indira, was born. Then the family moved to Mainland China to do the same thing. During the civil war between Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek, they ended up in Formosa in 1948, which later changed its name to Taiwan, where my father worked for the J.G. White Engineering Corp. For twelve years, Dad was very instrumental in the founding and development of Taiwan. I was born there, and two of my other three sisters were also born there. He was highly respected and has been written up in all the history books of Taiwan. He was awarded “The Shining Star” award, the highest honor bestowed upon any foreigner. When the Taiwanese Army wanted to celebrate its history, it would invite him and my mother back to Taiwan to participate in the ceremonies. Several books have been written about his work there.
I sell shrimp to Taiwan now, and when I go back there on business, they treat me like royalty, send a limousine to pick me up at my hotel and take me back to the University. My dad kept a very precise journal on his activities during the period when Taiwan was gaining its independence. He wrote in it every day. They have stacks of his journals at Taiwan University. If a student wants to know the exact day of the opening of the Cross-Taiwan Highway, which my father worked on, they can find it in one of his journals. J.G White was the precursor of what today is USAID.
We left Taiwan when I was two years old and went to Sonora, Mexico, where my father developed a silver mine in the middle of nowhere, four days across the desert from Obregon, high up in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains—no town, just the silver mine, its employees and us. It was one of the greatest times of my life. My mother was a biologist and a teacher, and she taught us kids much more than we would ever have learned in a traditional school. My father worked day and night on the development of the mine. Then we went to El Salvador for about a year. Then to Costa Rica, where we lived for four years. Then to Honduras, when I was about nine-years-old, and that’s where I grew up, right here in Tegucigalpa. When I turned eighteen, I went to college at the University of Michigan and then, in 1978, studied oceanography on research boats out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Shrimp News: There are other guys in the shrimp farming industry that were at the University of Michigan at about the same time you were there: Mark Rosenblum and Russ Allen. Did you know them?
Alexander deBeausset: Yes, I knew Mark and Russ very well, kept up with their careers in shrimp farming and still have fond memories of them.
Shrimp News: What was your first job in shrimp farming?
Alexander deBeausset: In 1978, after Woods Hole, I did biological research on boats in the North Atlantic and all over the place. I then worked with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service until 1979. In 1979, I learned that Red Lobster had a prawn farming (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) project here in Honduras, and I got a job with them. At the time, everyone thought that freshwater prawns were going to become an important aquaculture species in the Americas. Red Lobster built a prawn farm on the north coast in 1978. We closed the prawn’s life cycle and produced postlarvae at an inland hatchery with recirculating saltwater for the larval stages of the prawns. Then a drenching El Niño came along and turned all of Ecuador’s brackish water ponds into freshwater ponds. It looked like freshwater prawns could be a viable option for saltwater shrimp in Ecuador. Red Lobster sent me down to Ecuador to start a prawn hatchery, but then the El Niño ended, the ponds turned brackish again and everybody started growing saltwater shrimp again. The prawn hatchery that I built is still running today, producing prawns to stock in rice paddies, but when the industry reverted to saltwater shrimp after the El Niño, there was no market for my prawns, so Red Lobster traded me to one of its biggest shrimp suppliers down there, the El Rosario shrimp farm, Yoshi Hirono’s company, so I worked with Rosario and Santiago Maspons from 1981 to 1986. It seemed like we were expanding into another 400 hectares of shrimp ponds everyday. Those were crazy, booming days for shrimp farming in Ecuador.
I started flying ultra-light aircraft to get around to all of our projects in Ecuador, and that’s how I get around Guatemala today. Ultra-lights are really practical and much cheaper and safer than cars. No potholes or bandits, and you can land right in your front yard, with no shuttles back and forth to the airport. It’s a great way to go to work in the morning. In Guatemala, we have one farm up north, one in the middle of the south coast (with a hatchery nearby), and another farm way down near the El Salvador border, so when I’m on the coast, I fly an ultra-light between the farms and the hatchery. I’ve been in Guatemala for 28 years now, the longest time that I’ve been anywhere in my life.
Shrimp News: How many shrimp farms are there in Guatemala?
Alexander deBeausset: 57 small farms and four big groups: the Pescanova Group (140 hectares, two biosecure, intensive farms); the Esteromar Group (140 hectares, two farms, one about 140 hectares and the other about 350 hectares); the Unifarm Group (about 140 hectares of intensive ponds); and then there’s our group, Acuamaya (435 hectares, three farms, one 50-hectare farm up north in Zipacate, a 25 hectare intensive farm in the middle of the country, and a 360-hectare farm, near the El Salvador border).
Shrimp News: Are you thinking of expansion?
Alexander deBeausset: I’ve been expanding every year. Last year, we expanded the hatchery, ratcheting production of PLs up to one point six billion a year.
Shrimp News: Does Acuamaya have a feed mill?
Alexander deBeausset: No. We have three farms, a hatchery and a processing plant, but no feed mill. There are two big shrimp feed mills in Guatemala: Cargill and ARECA, which has found a big market for its high-quality feeds in Central America. Victor Talavera is ARECA’s feed specialist, their feed formulator. We’ve designed our own feed formula called “TIKAL”.
We have a new farm that runs on a semi-biofloc system, stocked at 100 shrimp per square meter. All of our farms are outdoors and not covered with greenhouses. Just like Honduras, we’re dealing with a drought this year. As a result of the drought, which might have been broken in the last couple of days, we’ve had bacterial problems, Vibrio problems, but not early mortality syndrome (EMS). In fact, no shrimp farms in Guatemala have been hit with EMS! Heavy use of nursery systems and genetics to get the animals up to half a gram before stocking has helped us avoid many of the problems associated with the drought. We keep the PLs in the nurseries for twenty to thirty days, and they really take off when we stock them into the growout ponds. Our growout period runs between sixty to eighty days, and we produce a 14-gram animal. Europe is our biggest market, and our animals have to be in perfect, perfect condition to get into Europe because many of them are cooked and eaten with their head still on. They are fast growing animals that are molting all the time, so their shells are thin. The animals that aren’t perfect we de-head and they go to the frozen tail market in Mexico and other tail markets. We can’t fill all our orders. Everyone comes to us for small shrimp.
Shrimp News: How does shrimp farming in Guatemala differ from shrimp farming in the rest of Latin America?
Alexander deBeausset: When I first went to Guatemala from Ecuador twenty-eight years ago, we started with the same pond designs that we used in Ecuador back in 1986, large ponds, ten to fifteen hectares each, depending on the topography of the land. Guatemala’s Pacific Coast doesn’t have the broad, low-lying estuaries that are used by shrimp farmers elsewhere in Central and South America. Basically, the country’s Pacific Coast is one long beach. We have some estuaries, but they’re small, nothing like the big estuaries in Honduras and Ecuador. Because of that, the development of shrimp farming in Guatemala took place on higher land, land that was more expensive and typically used for traditional agriculture. There wasn’t much land that had access to saltwater. Most of the available land near the sea was sandy, and a lot of it had to be avoided because of cotton farming and the chemicals and insecticides associated with cotton farming. We also had massive amounts of wild seedstock in Guatemala. This was before hatcheries and diseases, back when the life cycle of shrimp had not yet been closed. Plenty of inexpensive wild seedstock and a shortage of good shrimp farming sites pushed shrimp farmers in the direction of intensive shrimp farming.
When we started in 1986, we stocked seven postlarvae (PLs) per square meter, which was a lot back in those days. Then, every time we increased stocking densities, we were able to produce more and more shrimp. By 2008, we were using big Ecuadorian-style ponds with 20 horsepower of aeration and stocking them at 80, 90, 100 shrimp a square meter. Our farm, Acuamaya, was the pioneer in this methodology, however, around 2008, there were indications that we were overstocking and stressing the system and the shrimp, and we worried about sustainability. We had to reduce our stocking density to 50 or 60 PLs per square meter in our big earthen ponds, but still stock up to 125 shrimp per square meter in our plastic lined intensive systems, which is still very high by Latin American standards.
Our first big problem was with the Taura virus in 1994. With wild seed, which carries the virus, our survivals went from 85% to 25% over a two to three year period. To improve that situation, we adopted what we called, back in those days, “piggy back” stocking. In the first thirty days, or so, after stocking, we would estimate how many of the PLs had died and then restock the pond. That way we were able to keep densities and harvests high enough, while we desperately looked for solutions to the problem. Finally, in 1995, we brought some hatchery animals that were resistant to Taura. Almost immediately, our survivals went from 20% to 80%, but we knew that the game had changed and that we were likely to have new diseases come down the road on a regular basis. We had always depended on the abundant wild seed, and I had always dreaded the thought of building a hatchery because I was a pond guy, but we did the smart thing and built a hatchery in 1998. Back in those days, there were no hatcheries nearby that we could go to school on, but we had business relations with some shrimp farms in Ecuador, so we had access to the hatchery technology there. My technicians went down to Ecuador and spent a lot of time learning hatchery technology, while I started building a hatchery based on the little notes and pictures that they sent me. When finished, we immediately had a lot of success with the hatchery. We bred, spawned and stocked our own line of animals. We got ridiculously high survivals. Next, we had to develop a breeding strategy. We didn’t know if we should develop a specific pathogen free (SPF) animal or a specific pathogen resistant (SPR) animal? We decided to go with SPR.
By 2002, we had the hatchery up and running, and we were supplying most of the shrimp farms in Guatemala. At the time, we were able to farm all year long, getting four to five crops a year of small shrimp. We were one of the first companies in the Americas to export to Europe. We developed markets in France, Spain and Italy for small, whole animals. Europe loves our animals because of their dark color, a result of the soils at our upland locations. When our shrimp are cooked, they turn a much brighter red than other farmed shrimp.
Then in 2002, we got hit with whitespot, and we realized that we could no longer farm shrimp during the winter. The mortalities were just too high. We could only farm eight months of the year. Guatemala can get very cold in the winter. We can get strong winds out of the of the northwest and temperatures can easily drop down to 19°C. Before whitespot, we would just accept a very slow growth rate in the winter and produce a lot of small shrimp. The only way to avoid bad economic loses was to stay away from the cold weather. So once again, the answer was more intensification. If Mother Nature was only going to give us eight months to produce shrimp, how were we going to make money? We had to find a way to “make more hay while the sun was shining”. That’s when things really started exploding as far as intensification was concerned. We began stocking up to eighty animals per square meter in big ponds. In smaller ponds, some farmers were stocking up to 150 PLs per square meter. We used massive amounts of aeration, mostly paddlewheels, but also Aire-O2 injectors. Some of our farms didn’t have access to the electric grid. So on our biggest farm, the one near the El Salvador border that has 360 hectares, we generate 3.1 megawatts, from diesel generators to power 750 paddlewheel aerators from Taiwan.
We continued to intensify, but then we began to have sustainability problems again—bacterial diseases—and it was clear to me that we had to change course again. I thought, why can’t we use the small farm, intensive technology that’s common in Southeast Asia or the super-intensive technology that Robins McIntosh developed at Belize Aquaculture in Belize. We built a five-pond, seven-hectare farm with lined ponds that used a whole bunch of aeration and zero water exchange. That farm did really, really well, producing about 400,000 pounds of shrimp in 2003.
I thought that technology could easily be transferred to the small family farmer in Guatemala. But that idea bumped into a Catch-22. If you have capital, it’s easy to get more capital from the banks, but if you don’t, which was the case for small farmers in Guatemala, it’s all but impossible to get capital from the banks. So we found a government program that would guarantee private bank loans to farmers without capital—if the program were run by someone who knew the technology. It could be sweet peas, cucumbers—or shrimp. We knew shrimp farming technology, so Acuamaya supported the loans for five families to help them get started with small-scale intensive farming. They each needed $40 to $50 thousand to get started. They had small ponds ranging in size from 0.3 to 0.7 hectares. Aeration, liners, dirt movement, pumps and tubing cost somewhere around $10,000 to $15,000 a hectare for each family. On top of that, they needed operating capital for wages, diesel fuel to operate the aerators, pumps and a whole lot of feed. We had to teach them bookkeeping, we had to teach them how to run the farms, and we had to figure out how much they needed to borrow from the banks. The first five families got excellent results from their new farms the first year. Their loans were for two years, but they paid them back with the first harvest. I’ll never forget the day we went to the bank, a huge building in Guatemala City, twenty-five stories high, with the families who owned the five farms, all with beaming grins on their faces. At the conference room in the bank, each one of the farmers had a check with him to pay off his loan. Those five farmers are still working their shrimp farms today. Now we have fifty-seven of these small farms in Guatemala, producing five to six million pounds a year. They all drive better cars than I.
Supplying them with seedstock has become a big job for our hatchery, the only surviving shrimp hatchery in Guatemala, where we maintain our own line of broodstock, all survivors from our ponds. Our broodstock is now into its fifteenth generation, and we’re still selecting survivors from our ponds to maintain the genetic diversity of our line. After they’ve survived the viruses, the bacteria, the temperatures and the salinities of our ponds, we bring a population of animals back to our hatchery, where they go through quarantine and continued selection. We produce small shrimp, so they come into the hatchery at 15 grams, and we keep them in the selection area until they reach 45 grams. Then we narrow down the population six or seven more times. In the beginning, there might be 360 million animals in the selection pool. We get it down to the strongest of the strong, about 10,000 animals. Consequently, survivals in our growout ponds run from 85 to 90 percent, with no differences between big and small ponds. Even the small-scale guys get those survivals. Today, from the 2,000 hectares in Guatemala that are using this intensive technology, production is about 40 million pounds of shrimp.
Information: Alexander deBeausset, Acuamaya, 7a. Ave 3-74, Zona 9 Oficina, 301 Guatemala City, Guatemala (phone 502-2332-0505, USA phone 1-305-735-3669, email firstname.lastname@example.org, webpage http://acuamaya.com).