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Shrimp News Interviews Dr. James Wyban

The Father of SPF Shrimp


                                              Dr. Jim Sings to a Shrimp Conference in China  


Shrimp News: Hi Jim, where were you born and where did you grow up?


Jim Wyban: I was born and raised in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a nice middle class suburb of Cleveland that had great schools and a nurturing community.  At the time, Cleveland was a bustling industrial/financial center located on Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes, making it a coastal city.  It had a symphony, museums and theatres, professional sports teams; beautiful parks and lots of entertainment.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame developed in Cleveland because of the town’s well-known passion for pop music.


Shrimp News: Did you have any experiences during this period that might have influenced your ultimate decision to get into aquaculture and shrimp farming?


Jim Wyban: I’ve been a water person all my life.  As a kid, I was a good swimmer.  In the summer, our family went to a small lake in northeastern Indiana called “Lake James”, where boating, fishing, water skiing, canoeing and hanging around the water occupied our days.  During high school and college, I was a lifeguard and swim instructor every summer.  I gained a pretty good understanding of plumbing, water filtration and pumping systems from maintaining the pools I guarded.  I still swim everyday.


Shrimp News: Where did you go to high school?


Jim Wyban: I graduated from Cleveland Heights High School, a large public school where I received an excellent college-prep education.  It was very competitive academically.  I still go to reunions because my graduating class has an amazing spirit.


Shrimp News: Did you go fishing as a kid?


Jim Wyban: We fished at Lake James, catching walleye, bluegill, big and small-mouth bass and musky.  We always ate what we caught.


Shrimp News: What was your first job?


Jim Wyban: I had my first paper route when I was nine-years old, followed by several other paper routes by the time I was a teenager.  They taught me transactional skills like how to collect and handle money and how to serve customers.  Having my own pocket money felt good and planted the entrepreneur seed in me.


Shrimp News: At the time, did you have any special interests in biology or marine science?


Jim Wyban: I always loved biology in school.  I did well in school, scored high on tests and enjoyed intellectual challenges.  I had exceptional math skills and probably should have been a math major, but there were way more cute girls in biology, so that’s where I ended up.


Shrimp News: Where did you go to college and what did you major in?


Jim Wyban: As an undergraduate, I went to Northwestern University, a private, Big Ten school in a suburb of Chicago, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in in Biology.  In the summer before my senior year, I visited the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with my advisor.  That was the first time I saw the ocean, and I was completely enthralled.  I then took a limnology course in my senior year and got hooked on the aquatic sciences.


Shrimp News: Where did you go to graduate school and why?


Jim Wyban: After graduating from Northwestern, I hitchhiked to South America—to Leticia in Colombia—to see the Amazon River.  I loved the tropics and Latin culture.  After about six months on the road, I wound up in Hawaii.  I fell in love with Hawaii the day I arrived, and I’ve lived here ever since.  After living on the island of Kauai for a year, I went to grad school at University of Hawaii in Honolulu to develop my professional career.  I wanted to get a master’s degree, so I could teach at Kauai Community College.  I was accepted into the Zoology Department, which was the home of lots of marine biologist, a very cool collection of folks.  Once I got started in grad school, I got swept up in the intellectual environment and ended up with a PhD.  My dissertation title was: “Biochemical and Genetic Aspects of Fish Development”.  It was hard-core science, and I got to use the latest biochemical methods to study gene expression.  I raised a large diverse breeding population of Japanese medaka on Coconut Island at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.  I loved breeding and raising all the different fish families and testing them for genetic variation in gene expression.  That effort prepped me for my shrimp breeding company, which I developed ten years later.  One year during grad school, I spent the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  It’s an amazing place where some of the world’s best biologists congregate in the summer to enjoy the Cape and do amazing research.  It’s common there to find yourself sitting next to a Nobel Laureate at one of the local diners.  I went back to Woods Hole for a couple of weeks after I sold High Health Aquaculture, the shrimp broodstock company that I started in Hawaii, which I’ll have more to say about below, to reconnect with my science roots.


Shrimp News: What was your first job in aquaculture?


Jim Wyban: During my last year in grad school, my wife got pregnant, and we decided to raise our family in Hawaii.  There were no jobs in molecular biology in Hawaii at the time, so I ran an ad in the newspaper that read: “PhD with family seeks aquaculture opportunity.”  That lead to our leasing Lokoea Fishpond, an ancient Hawaiian fishpond on the north shore of the island of Oahu (in Haleiwa).  We turned it into a fish farm, and that launched my aquaculture career.  The farm got a lot of attention in the press.  For example, a beautiful photo of our fishpond appeared on the cover of Aquaculture Magazine.  My business partner and wife, Carol Araki Wyban, wrote and illustrated a great book: “Tide and Current: Fishponds of Hawaii”.  It covered the history and culture of Hawaii’s ancient fishponds and our experience at Lokoea and was published by University of Hawaii Press.


Shrimp News: What was your first job in shrimp farming?


Jim Wyban: My first attempt to raise shrimp happened at Lokoea Fishpond.  Nick Carpenter, operations manager and hatchery specialist at Amorient Aquafarm, Inc., a shrimp farm and hatchery in Hawaii, had started producing white shrimp postlarvae at its hatchery in Kahuku.  I bought some and stocked them in a small earthen pond that I had built to use as a nursery pond.  After about four months, I harvested some 15-gram shrimp and took them to the farmers’ market where we marketed most our fish.  Our Asian customers freaked out over the shrimp, which sold out in ten minutes, convincing me that my future was in shrimp farming.  My work at the fish farm eventually led to a job offer from the Oceanic Institute (OI) to manage a large research project on shrimp farming.


Shrimp News: Tell me about that job.


Jim Wyban: Because I had a PhD and was managing a commercial fish farm, I was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force for Developing Hawaii’s Aquaculture Industry.  The group included business people and researchers with state bureaucrats providing the staffing.  Bill Rowland, President of OI, was Chairman of the Task Force.  My active participation in the lively discussions at some of the hearings apparently impressed Bill.  When OI secured funding from Congress to develop the US Shrimp Farming Consortium, Bill asked me if I was interested in managing the project.  I had already decided shrimp was my future, so I accepted his offer.  I became the Principal Investigator of the US Marine Shrimp Farming Consortium.  Gary Pruder started at OI at the same time and was hired to be the Coordinator of the Consortium.


One of the first things I did to get the OI Program started was to form an advisory committee.  I recruited Dr. Kuni Shigueno from Japan, Dr. I-Chui Liao from Taiwan and Dr. Paul Sandifer from South Carolina to serve as our technical advisory group.  We convened a workshop in Hawaii, and the three of them gave us their valuable insights on key elements of the fledgling global shrimp industry.  Not one of us would have predicted the industry would grow 10 fold over in the next 20 years!


Shrimp News: Did you get into round pond technology right away?


Jim Wyban: After looking at the US industry and comparing it to what was happening in Asia, we knew that US shrimp production had to be intensified.  Key features of intensification include water mixing, aeration and removing sludge.  The most efficient design to achieve those objectives was to use a round pond design.  Dr. Shigueno had designed a round pond system for growing kuruma shrimp (Penaeus japonicus) in Japan and we borrowed some of his design ideas for our system.


After our early work in round ponds, many round ponds sprung up in Asia.  To get the round pond concept fully functional though required something else.  It needed specific pathogen free (SPF) shrimp.  One trial we ran in our round pond at OI had disastrous results.  Jim Brock (Hawaii’s Aquatic Veterinarian) figured out that the shrimp were infected with infectious hypodermal and hematopoietic necrosis virus (IHHNV).  It was then we realized that you have to have clean (SPF) shrimp to do reliable intensive culture.


Shrimp News: Why didn’t the round pond concept take off?


Jim Wyban: Today, the largest shrimp farm in Hawaii, Kona Bay Resources, on the island of Kauai uses round ponds.  That farm was designed by my colleague, Jim Sweeney, and it is a highly efficient operation.  They’ve incorporated biofloc technology into their management system, and their round ponds work really well.


Shrimp News: A lot of your early work at OI was on maturation and broodstock.  Was that always your primary area of interest?


Jim Wyban: My scientific training was in genetics and reproduction, so, yes, those areas have received a lot of my attention.  They are fascinating to me, and in our industry require the most advanced technology.  The biology of reproduction in shrimp is amazing and larval development is fantastic, too.  I can look at larvae through a microscope for hours at a time.  It’s a marvel to see them change stage by stage.


Shrimp News: What other shrimp research interested you?


Jim Wyban: Overall, my work has focused on all aspects of shrimp production—from broodstock maturation through to harvesting, processing and marketing.  I’ve published articles in all these areas and wrote a shrimp manual (with Jim Sweeney) that covered all aspects of production.


Shrimp News: When did you get into the development of SPF broodstock?


Jim Wyban: In the shrimp consortium, we were tasked with identifying and resolving problems that were preventing the development of the US shrimp farming industry.  We learned from the industry that disease was the industry’s biggest problem.  When we looked at how poultry, pork and beef industries dealt with disease problems, we learned about SPF pigs.  We decided that developing a SPF shrimp might be helpful.  Plus, we had seen that IHHNV infected shrimp really screwed up our round pond production.


After we had established the SPF shrimp at OI, we convened an animal breeding workshop to bring together smart people in the field to advise us on how to proceed breeding our SPF shrimp.   One of the invitees was Dr. Trygve Gjedrem from Norway.  He is the father of Atlantic Salmon breeding and an expert in animal breeding and genetics.  Trygve convinced me of the power of family-based breeding for non-continuous traits such as disease resistance.  That methodology became an organizing principal of all of our breeding efforts at HHA.


Shrimp News: What are some of your publications that you are most proud of?


Jim Wyban: I’ve written on a wide range of subjects from gene expression in fish development to the impact of SPF shrimp on the shrimp farming industry.  I’m proud of all of my papers because they each addressed a subject about which I’m deeply curious and represent an important component of my professional development.  The shrimp manual I wrote with Jim Sweeney, while I was at OI, is a compilation of practical methods for shrimp husbandry.  It has withstood the test of time and some people in the shrimp industry still refer to it as the “Bible”.


I really liked the work I did on the chicken endogenous virus, when I was a grad student in a Physiology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.  That’s when DNA techniques were just getting started.  I collected chicken blood samples from all over New England and tested their DNA for presence of the endogenous virus using the Southern Blot technique.  I found that the endogenous chicken virus was present in all the samples and in many genome locations, which was pretty surprising because no one had ever looked at this before.  We published the results in the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, which is big time in molecular biology.  Many years later that work is still important because endogenous viruses are really important.  Recent reports show they may provide an antiviral defense system during early development, and they are part of regulatory sequences that used to be called “junk” DNA.  I never agreed with that terminology because all DNA must exist for some purpose, otherwise it would have been eliminated during the evolutionary process.


More recently, I was thrilled to give a TED Talk last fall.  I’m a big fan of that organization, and I really enjoy listening to TED Talks online, so I was over the moon when I got invited to do one.  It focused on High Health Aquaculture’s history.


Shrimp News: When and why did you leave OI and start High Health Aquaculture?


Jim Wyban: In 1992, all of the US shrimp farming industry was stocked with PLs from the SPF broodstock that we (OI) produced on the big island of Hawaii.  As a result, US shrimp farms doubled their production over previous years.  I went to the president of OI and told him that this was a very big deal and that it had huge commercial potential that we should pursue.  He said OI was a nonprofit and didn’t do commercialization.  So I quit my job and started HHA with my wife Carol as my partner.  Around 2004, when the Asia broodstock market was exploding, my stepson Jason Ueki joined HHA as Vice President of Marketing.  He had corporate marketing experience on the mainland and really upgraded our marketing program.  Jason and I would talk strategy about HHA for hours.


Shrimp News: Tell the story about the failure of SPF shrimp in Ecuador.


Jim Wyban: Our first effort to develop our new company was to get an investor.  Santiago Maspons was the owner of El Rosario in Ecuador and was very interested in the SPF technology and agreed to invest in our startup.  He financed a trial of SPF shrimp in Ecuador in 1993.  We sent SPF broodstock from Hawaii to Ecuador to stock El Rosario’s hatchery.  It was managed by David Garriques, who implemented our biosecurity program and produced about 500 million SPF PLs, which were stocked in five El Rosario farms around the country.  At first all went well, but after 30 days in the ponds the shrimp started dying.  In a few weeks they all died.  This was one of the first well-documented cases of Taura Syndrome in Ecuador.  Ken Hasson and Don Lightner did a lot of work in Ecuador on the problem, and Jim Brock worked on it in Hawaii.  It turned out that our SPF stock was susceptible to this new virus.  Santiago Maspons lost interest in the SPF concept and withdrew as an investor so we retreated to Hawaii to continue our efforts.  This first failure of SPF shrimp made a big impression in Ecuador and Latin America and SPF shrimp have never regained favor there despite their amazing success in Asia.


During that period, one night Jim Sweeney and I accompanied a batch of SPF PLs from the hatchery to a farm on an island in an estuary near Guayaquil.  We spent all night at the farm and were returning to Guayaquil by boat early the next morning.  As we crossed a large open area of the estuary, a zodiac boat raced across the water to intercept us.  It was an Ecuadorian Navy boat, and it stopped us.  Its officers and some of its sailors boarded our boat.  Two young sailors with submachine guns stood in the middle of our launch fanning their machine guns back and forth in our direction while their officer questioned us.  I was super scared.  Just the week before a shrimp farm owner had been killed on his boat in the same estuary.  They eventually let us go.  We were happy to reach land and enjoyed a few well-earned refreshments after that.


Shrimp News: Jim, you experimented with a number of shrimp species.  Are we overlooking some species that we should be paying attention to?


Jim Wyban: In addition to my work with Penaeus vannamei, I developed SPF stocks of P. monodon, P. stylirostris and P. japonicus.  Each of these has special traits that makes them interesting, but none has as good of production traits as vannameiMonodon will continue to be cultured in places on a limited basis, but its numbers will shrink as India continues it’s switch to vannamei.  Monodon is a beautiful animal and very tasty.  But its inherent production traits are inferior to vannamei’sStylirostris’ biology is quite similar to vannamei’s, but it’s much more delicate and prone to unexplained mortalities.  Stylirostris is a better eating shrimp than vannamei.  Our stylirostris were served to the Emperor of Japan when he visited Hawaii a few years ago.  Of course japonicus is the most beautiful shrimp and very delicious, but they grow slowly and require special feeds.  I’m confident that vannamei is the best species for global shrimp farming.


Shrimp News: Should shrimp farmers be paying more attention to resistance than growth rate and survival?


Jim Wyban: Shrimp growth rate and survival are the two most powerful factors determining profitability in shrimp farming.  But deciding if one is more important than the other depends on local conditions and prevalent production economics.


The Ecuadorian industry’s recent windfall experience illustrates how valuable breeding disease resistance can be.  Its industry was severely damaged when the whitespot virus arrived there a decade ago.  It brought the industry to its knees.  But some people in the industry refused to give up and started breeding survivors of the mass mortalities.  Later, they incorporated a molecular marker system into their breeding program to increase their selection intensity, and over multiple generations, they developed a whitespot-resistant stock.  Its growth is very slow, but over time that trait can be fixed.  The resistant shrimp allowed Ecuador to produce good crops in their open ponds, despite widespread whitespot contamination.  When early mortality syndrome (EMS) struck Asia, it disrupted the global supply of shrimp and prices spiked.  Ecuador was ready with some of its biggest production ever and hit the jackpot with record harvests during the 18-month price peak caused by EMS in Asia.  I’d wager that the huge profits realized from this bonanza more than paid for all of their work developing the resistant stock.  It is one of shrimp farming’s great success stories.


In China, where PLs are very cheap (2-3$/10,000 PLs) survival is not so important and growth rate is everything.  All PLs are compared at their 30-day size.  SPF stocks (from imported SPF broodstock) win this contest, and therefore, receive the highest demand.  Chinese shrimp farmers pay about double for SPF PLs versus local PLs.  In the long run, shrimp breeders will breed for both traits: fast growth and high survival.


Shrimp News: You did a lot of international work in the 2000s.  Are there any projects that you are particularly proud of?


Jim Wyban: We did shrimp projects in Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Thailand.  They were big, complex projects that tested all of our skills.  We did an SPF monodon project in Thailand that David Garriques managed for us.  We setup a hatchery to produce PLs from our SPF monodon.  It was too early in the domestication process of our monodon, and they couldn’t compete with our fast growing SPF vannamei.  That project led David to go to work for Charoen Pokphand (CP) Thailand, where he still heads up CP’s monodon breeding program.  David also helped in our project in Indonesia, where we converted Dipasena’s huge hatchery in Sumatra from monodon to vannamei.


We developed an SPF broodstock facility on an island in Halong Bay in Vietnam, hiring Matt Briggs out of Ecuador to help with that project.  HHA’s Grant Kunishima was also involved in that project.


We did a large project on super-intensive greenhouse raceway farming system in Hainan China under contract with T.K. Lim.  Todd Blacher was the production manager on that project and Tzachi Samocha was our consultant.  T.K. was the developer of Dipasena—the world’s largest shrimp farm—in Indonesia.  He was a real character and he escorted me around China (Hainan, Qingdao and Shanghai) as well as Singapore and Indonesia.  I never knew what to expect when traveling with T.K.  Carol and I also travelled around Florida with T.K.  We passed through Boca Raton during the anthrax scare.  T.K. said if we died, we could farm shrimp in heaven.  One time we met with Mr. Nursalim in Singapore.  He was TK’s brother and the Indonesian banker who financed Dipasena.  One day at their corporate office in Singapore, Mr. Nursalim told us the story of how his bodyguard was hacked to pieces in front of him by angry shrimp farmers at Dipasena, and he barely escaped with his life.  His other bodyguard used his machine gun to get them back to their helicopter to escape with their lives.


In our joint venture with Thai Union in Thailand, we designed a giant SPF hatchery.  Rittirong Boonemechoate was my main collaborator at Thai Union.  Grant Kunishima was our production manager there.  It was a state-of-the-art facility and colossal in scale.  We eventually sold our shares to Thai Union, and it’s now called “Thai Union Hatchery”.


The thing I’m most proud of is the development of our company High Health Aquaculture.  It was truly a zero to one phenomena (see Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One), meaning it was something brand new that no one had ever done before.  We had to develop all aspects of the business from breeding the shrimp to growing broodstock, to marketing them to a skeptical world, and to packing and shipping live animals around the world.  It took all of our collective talents (Carol’s and mine).  It’s only now, looking back, that I can see how many things we had to figure out and how many challenges we overcame.


Shrimp News: Are broodstock always sold in pairs, a male and a female?  What’s the going price today for a pair of monodonVannamei?


Vannamei broodstock are always sold in pairs (1 male, 1 female).  SPF vannamei broodstock from Hawaii average about $100 per pair.  In 2014, Hawaii broodstock producers exported 825,000 animals worth about $40 million.  That made shrimp broodstock one of Hawaii’s top exports.


Shrimp News: Why hasn’t SPF monodon broodstock gotten established around the world?


Jim Wyban: We developed SPF monodon 20 years ago at HHA.  Moana Technologies, another shrimp broodstock company in Hawaii, also developed SPF monodon.  One aspect of monodon is that it takes at least five generations of domestication before reliable reproduction is achieved.  By the time that arrived, vannamei farming was well established in Asia and interest in monodon was very low.  Ultimately, SPF monodon never took off as a commercial product because shrimp farmers make a lot more money growing SPF vannamei.  They grow fast with good survival and have excellent market acceptance.  Farmer’s profits are two to five times higher with vannamei than with monodon.  Some extensive farms will continue to grow monodon, but the vast bulk of the industry will grow vannamei.


Shrimp News: I don’t think I ever published anything about your sale of High Health Aquaculture.  Tell us about it.


Jim Wyban: When HHA was going full blast selling broodstock around Asia we were having ongoing discussions with Charoen Pokphand (CP) in Indonesia and Thailand.  We talked with Dean Akiyama and a few of his bosses.  CP Indonesia was our biggest broodstock customer, and one day they approached us about a buyout.  At the time, we had signed the deal with Thai Union, and I really wanted to see that through, so I wasn’t really interested in selling.  CP Indonesia ended up buying Shrimp Improvement Systems (SIS) in Florida, instead.  A few years later, we had finished the Thai Union project.  One day, Carol and I were flying home after a business trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong.  We had met with a couple of different Chinese companies who were interested in buying HHA.  At the Honolulu airport, waiting for our flight to Kona, we bumped into Dean Akiyama.  He was then President of SIS and was headed to Kona, too.  As luck would have it, we ended up sitting side-by-side with Dean on the flight.  We mentioned that we were returning from Hong Kong and Shanghai.  He knew there weren’t any broodstock buyers in either of those places and probably figured out we were talking business at a different level.  CP Indonesia and SIS really wouldn’t want us to sell to a Chinese company because that could have cooked their golden goose.  A few weeks later, I sent Dean an email saying we were looking at selling HHA.  He immediately called me and said he was coming to Hawaii right away.  A few days later, Carol, Jason and I met with Dean and Joe Tabrah (SIS’s General Manager) at the Royal Kona Resort.  After some brief pleasantries, we reached agreement—close to our asking price—in a just few minutes.  We were ready to sell, and they wanted to buy.  It worked for everyone.  In addition to buying HHA, SIS invested millions in greatly expanding their facilities at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) and secured their place as the largest SPF broodstock supplier in the world.


Shrimp News: What are you doing today?  Any shrimp interests?


Jim Wyban: Since the sale of HHA, I’ve done some consulting on shrimp projects in China, Mexico, India and Hong Kong.  I enjoy helping people solve their technical or business problems and make their business more profitable, sustainable and enjoyable.


Shrimp News: What are your plans for the future?


Jim Wyban: I’m currently writing a book about the future of shrimp farming.  The world is undergoing tremendous technological and environmental changes that will greatly impact shrimp farming.  The book will describe how these and other factors will impact the shrimp industry and how the industry should prepare.  I hope to finish it in about a year.


Information: Dr. Jim Wyban (email jim.wyban@gmail.com, Twitter @Jexstatic).


Source: Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International.  Interview with Dr. James Wyban.  Based on telephone conversations and email exchanges with Jim Wyban in April and May 2015. Published May 21, 2015.


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