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The First Prawn Farmer in the Continental United States
I first met Paul Mulvihill in 1981, at a World Aquaculture Society meeting in Seattle, Washington, USA. He was sitting alone in the back of a dark bus, waiting for a social activity to break up, so he could get back to the conference hotel. Me too. Both of us were “true believers” in the future of aquaculture, so we had a great, hour-long conversation, mostly about freshwater prawns (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), which Paul thought were the future of aquaculture in the United States. Me too. The last time I spent any time with Paul was at the World Aquaculture Society meeting in Orlando, Florida, USA, in 2001, when he showed me some memorabilia from his prawn farming ventures.
In unrelated incidents, Paul and his son Michael died in August 2002.
Michael was a good friend of Shrimp News International, the World Aquaculture Society—and shrimp hatcheries worldwide. In Michael’s honor, the Mulvihill family and AREA (next paragraph) created the M.P. Mulvihill Aquaculture Student Scholarship, awarded within the World Aquaculture Society community. The first $1,500 scholarship was awarded at WAS’s Aquaculture America 2003 meeting in February 2003, in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Paul and Michael were the first to close the life cycle and commercially raise the giant freshwater prawn (M. rosenbergii) in the continental United States. In 1972, they founded AREA, which supplies shrimp hatcheries worldwide with aeration, water and heating/chilling systems. Today, AREA is the oldest and one of the largest aquaculture supply companies in the world.
Jason Mulvihill, the current president of AREA, is Mike’s son. He forwarded one of his grandfather’s last reports on prawn farming, dated around February 2002. It chronicles some of Paul and Mike’s attempts to get prawn farming started in Florida.
Freshwater Prawn Farming in Florida
In 1968, Paul Mulvihill, a Captain in the U.S. Navy, reached the highest rank in his specialty, and, in preparation for retirement, started researching the potential of aquaculture in the United States. He became a charter member of the Catfish Farmers of America and the World Mariculture Society and joined the U.S. Trout Association, the Oyster Institute and the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Organization.
In the mid-1960s, Dr. S.W. Ling (a United Nations FAO representative in Malaysia) successfully spawned the giant freshwater prawn (M. rosenbergii) and sent specimens to Dr. Takuji Fujimura at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. By 1968, Fujimura was able to produce juveniles and obtain production data from growout trials. From 1968 on, he and Dr. Ling worked on the development of prawn culture in Hawaii, Malaysia and Florida. As they were learning about aquaculture, Mulvihill and his son Michael spent a lot of time with Fujimura and Ling.
In 1968, after months of research and a sizable personal investment, Mulvihill formed APARI (Aquaculture Products and Research, Inc.) to pursue the development of freshwater prawn farming. In conjunction with Michael, he submitted a proposal to the Economic Development Agency (EDA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., for funds to explore the potential of freshwater prawn farming in the USA.
In 1969, the Mulvihills received a nonprofit contract from EDA to develop freshwater prawn farming in Florida. Specifically, the contract said: “The work will be directed at the development of techniques for rearing the freshwater shrimp in a controlled aquatic environment utilizing presently unproductive areas in the state of Florida, particularly on Indian reservations.”
In order to make the project viable, it was necessary to produce seedstock (postlarvae) at a rate in excess of 10 to 20 per liter. A site was found in South Dade County that had an existing building and access to freshwater at a depth of 20 feet and brackish water at 85 feet. The hatchery phase of prawn farming requires higher salinities than the growout phase, which can be done in freshwater. At this new site, Mulvihill produced 50 postlarvae per liter. A pilot installation consisting of four growout ponds was established on the Seminole Indian Reservation. It was now time to bring the operation to semi-commercial status, and the Seminole Tribe requested additional EDA funding to develop more ponds. On the arrival of a new non-Indian advisor, however, the request was withdrawn and the EDA contract expired. EDA gave APARI permission to commercialize the technology for hatching and farming prawns. Because the contract was nonprofit and there was no accumulation of reserve funds, APARI did not have the funds to develop a farm of its own.
In 1971, an article on freshwater prawns by Tom Costello (Bureau of Commercial Fisheries) appeared in Aquaculture Magazine and created a lot of interest in prawn farming. State agencies, universities and private industry started research; however, all attempts at commercial prawn farming failed because of the inability to produce large volumes of seedstock, the lack of pond management knowledge, and above all, unfavorable water temperatures. M. rosenbergii will not tolerate temperatures below 60° F. Ideal growth is obtained in the 80°+ F range. The groundwater in South Dade County, Florida, ranges between 74° F to 76° F. From April to October the temperature in ponds is usually in the 80° F range. During a cold spell, groundwater can be used to maintain pond temperatures above the lethal temperature range.
APARI began selling prawn seedstock to farms in Central and South America and the Caribbean in order to support its hatchery operations. The income from sales of postlarvae was not sufficient to continue operations and the shutdown of the hatchery became imminent.
Then, on October 30, 1973, APARI entered into an agreement with Weyerhaeuser Company, a huge forest products corporation, to develop freshwater shrimp farming. APARI received $215,000 to refine its technology for hatching and rearing freshwater prawns. Mulvihill was able to produce 4,000 pounds per acre per year. Marketing tests were done and it was obvious that a price of $7.00 per pound could be obtained. On June 30, 1975, Weyerhaeuser purchased APARI. Paul became a consultant to Weyerhaeuser and Michael went to work on Weyerhaeuser’s new freshwater prawn project. Weyerhaeuser sent Michael to the University of Pittsburgh to attend a management program for executives, and he later became the project director of Weyerhaeuser’s prawn project.
At its facilities in Homestead, Florida, APARI had a large influx of biologists with doctorate and master degrees and experience in engineering and marketing who fine-tuned the hatchery process and increased pond production.
It was Weyerhaeuser’s hope to construct shrimp farms at various pulp mills around the country and utilize its waste heat effluent to grow freshwater prawns. After performing several heat dissipation evaluations, however, Weyerhaeuser found that it could not achieve temperatures high enough to grow prawns. Next, Weyerhaeuser accessed the Department of Energy’s computer systems to identify power plants on the eastern seaboard, in the Gulf States and in Southern California that were baseload facilities and operated with fossil fuel (at the time oil prices were skyrocketing). Five facilities would be necessary to make a prawn farming venture profitable. An economic model showed that the overhead cost associated with five sites would be high, but not cost prohibitive. It was also concluded that as long as the heated effluent could be secured at no cost, the venture would be profitable. This concept, however, was never developed.
Weyerhaeuser decided to look at the prospects of prawn farming in tropical countries, but limited its list to places where it was already doing business: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brazil. After careful consideration, Brazil was selected because of its proximity to the USA market, infrastructure support, availability of reputable partners, minimum corruption, and Weyerhaeuser’s plan to construct a tropical pine seedling project in Brazil.
A pilot project was built in Macapa in the territory of Amapá in the Amazon River basin. Everyone knew that Brazil made it very difficult to repatriate profits. The economic advisor on the project gave assurances that he could develop strategies to get the money out. One of his strategies was selling the prawns to an associated marketing company in New York at a very low price, so that the profits would occur in New York. As things turned out, the economic advisor was never able to develop a strategy to repatriate capital or earnings, which caused the demise of the project.
Unable to get money out of Brazil and no longer wanting to conduct operations in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, Weyerhaeuser decided to get out of freshwater prawn farming—after having spent in excess of $1 million.
In 1972, Paul Mulvihill formed AREA (Aquaculture Research and Environmental Associates) on the concept that fish and shrimp farmers needed aeration to increase production. In the 1970s, one of the limiting conditions in rearing fish or shrimp was the availability of oxygen. There were many devices on the market, but economic feasibility became an issue in the application of these devices. AREA introduced the Rotron Regenerative Blower to aquatic hatcheries and farming. At that time, the air pumps and blowers on the market produced high pressures, but relatively low volumes of air. AREA designed techniques to use the high-volume air, which appreciably reduced energy costs.
In 1975, Mulvihill, while still a consultant to Weyerhaeuser, started AREA Tropical Fish Farm, which raised at least 35 varieties of tropical fish. He tried to sell freshwater prawns to the aquarium trade for $7.00 per animal, but the concept didn’t work. The prawns ate all the fish in the purchaser’s aquariums within a week. In 1988, when he lost the ability to walk, he leased the farm to a local tropical fish farmer.
In 1992, having additional land, Mulvihill established AREA Water Gardens to provide koi and goldfish to the local consumers. The demand then arose for equipment and construction, so he started AES (Aquatic Environmental Systems) to provide those services.
Information: Jason Mulvihill, President, AREA, P.O. Box 901303, Homestead, FL 33090-1303 USA (phone 305-248-4205, fax 305-248-1756, email email@example.com, webpage http://www.areainc.com).