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On November 17, 2005, at the 7th International Shrimp Culture Symposium and Exhibition in Panama, I interviewed, Bolivar “Boli” Martinez, owner of Farallon Aquaculture, a Panama-based company with shrimp hatcheries and farms throughout Central America.
Shrimp News: Boli, how did you get started in shrimp farming?
Bolivar Martinez: Back in the early 1980s, while I was a student in the United States, I started going to supermarkets and grocery stores to check on the price of shrimp. I knew how much the fishermen in Panama, my home country, were getting for shrimp, and I thought there’s some money to be made in the shrimp business.
I went on to become a naval architect, but always kept up with shrimp prices through the New York Green Sheets, a discontinued price report that was published by the National Marine Fisheries Service. From the price sheets, I noticed Ecuador’s increasing production of farmed shrimp.
While still working as an engineer in the States, I returned to Panama and talked to my good friend Freddy Humbert, who today is the Panamanian Ambassador to the United States. At the time, he was managing a shrimp processing plant in Vacamonte in association with his family’s shrimp fishing fleet. I asked him if I could buy shrimp from him and sell it in the United States, and the answer was, “No”. All his production was presold. Shrimp was a real luxury at the time. His company had a thirty-year relationship with Darik in New York, which took most of his shrimp. So I forgot about shrimp for a while, knowing that if I wanted to get into the shrimp business I would have to have my own boat.
In early 1990, someone asked me to come to the port of Vacamonte to inspect a shrimp fishing boat that was for sale. I took the job to earn some money and to learn something about shrimp boats. Eventually, I inspected 120 boats—and bought one. Well not exactly, I had a friend who was interested in shrimp fishing and about to retire. I said to him, “Why don’t we buy this boat, fix it up and share the profits. It will give you something to do in your retirement.” Well, we bought the boat for $32,000 and spent eight months fixing it up. We had no idea what we were doing. We thought it would take $30,000 to fix it up, but it took $80,000. I had to borrow money from everyone I knew. Panama had just gone through the American invasion to depose Noriega, so no bank financing was available. All the money that I got was short-term and personally guaranteed. My wife feared that we were going to declare bankruptcy before we ever got started. She cried and cried and cried. I had $40,000 of short term debt to worry about. When we first put the boat to work, it almost went up in flames, and it was a bad season for shrimp. No one was catching anything.
Then I heard that Agromarina de Panama, the first big shrimp farm in Panama, was looking for a vessel to fish shrimp broodstock. I had no idea what broodstock was, but I had a friend who was working at Agromarina. I paid her a visit and found out what they wanted. I told them my boat was the strongest, the best and the fastest boat available. At the beginning of 1991, Agromarina hired me, and my boat, to fish broodstock for them. The relationship lasted three months. We produced too much broodstock. I gave the captain a dollar for every broodstock, the engine guy 50 cents and the crewman 25 cents for every broodstock. Suddenly, production jumped from 50 to 100 animals a day to 300 to 400 animals a day. Our contract with Agromarina had a time and price clause, but, since broodstock had always been in short supply before, there was no top to the number of animals that they would take. All of a sudden, they had 30,000 broodstock animals and did not know what to do with them. When Agromarina broke the contract, I felt rejected, a loss of dignity. It was my first real business experience, but I learned a lot from it—along with the desire to fight to stay in the shrimp business.
So, I went underground for a while. During this period, I met Ron Staha, who was building his hatchery and wanted someone to fish broodstock for him. We signed a contract and I started fishing for Ron. We had a good relationship, but he did not want to pay my price for broodstock, so I started to export broodstock. Well, he and other people in Panama did not like that idea because they thought the broodstock would be overfished. So, I decided that if I could not export broodstock, I would produce nauplii. I got together with a guy who had been fired by Agromarina and who knew how to produce nauplii and said,“let’s do it.”
We started Farallon Aquaculture in January 1993 by selling shares to stockholders. We built our first hatchery and started operating in April 1994. By that time, Ron Staha had someone else fishing his broodstock and Agromarina was doing its own thing. We hit the market at a great time, during a nauplii shortage. Ron had forced Agromarina out of the nauplii business and became the nauplii supplier in Panama. We started producing three, three and a half million nauplii per day, that was our limit. The nauplii price at the time was $0.75 to $0.85 per thousand, or $750 to $850 per million. That was the original prehistoric technology that came from Agromarina. I traveled the world looking at other shrimp hatcheries to see how they were handing nauplii and discovered that my background in engineering would help me build a more efficient hatchery.
I left the Panama Canal Commission in January 1995.
When Luiz Faria came on board with Farallon Aquaculture in April 1996, our production jumped from 3 million naups per day to 20 million without adding any new tanks. We were selling to Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Ecuador, and later Honduras. We became much more aggressive. We eventually were able to produce 80 million naups a day, consistently high quality naups. We would throw away 20 to 25 percent of the daily production as part of our selection routine.
We came to the realization that we would have to fill very large orders of naups so that hatcheries could stock their entire facility at one time and harvest at one time, thereby avoiding the potential of introducing diseases through multiple stockings. So we built a very large maturation facility and that gave us an edge. I knew that nauplii production was very profitable and that we were going to have a lot of competition. The Colombians were the first new people to get into the business, and after them there were many others. So we began to produce postlarvae. In 1997, in our first four months of production, we produced 160 million PLs. In 2005, from all of our hatcheries, our sales will be 3.5 billion. By the end of 2006, we expect to be producing and selling 4 billion PLs a year. We figured that as sanitary regulations increased and shrimp prices dropped, PLs would have to be produced closer to the farms. So, we now have hatcheries in Panama, Nicaragua, Belize, two in Ecuador and one in Mexico, and we’re building one in Venezuela right now.
We analyzed every detail of what it takes to produce nauplii, postlarvae and farmed shrimp. We update that analysis daily. It’s a never-ending process. We believe in constant improvement.
Shrimp News: I’ve heard a rumor that your hatchery in Panama has been sold to someone who wants to tear it down and build a resort. Any truth to that rumor?
Bolivar Martinez: Yes, but the site has not been sold, yet. We plan to sell it, and we are already looking for a new hatchery site in Panama.
Shrimp News: Let’s talk a little about your strain of postlarvae, MegaLarva. How did it come about?
Bolivar Martinez: At the end of 1998, we were producing a lot of nauplii. I think the Taura syndrome helped because the wild broodstock from Panama produced larvae that resisted Taura better than any other larvae. There were no genetic programs at the time, but the Colombians were getting started with a program put together by a Norwegian group. Eventually the Colombians became good hard competitors, and I learned a lot from them. Twelve Colombian hatcheries put aside their differences and formed AquaGen, a genetics/maturation center that produced enough seedstock for the Colombian industry and for export. It was a very complicated thing to do. They got some help from the government. They started to sell postlarvae in Central America, which I considered to be “my territory”, and got a higher price and better results than farmers were getting with my seedstock. They had a better product. They had a better plan, and they were doing an excellent job of marketing. They were beating me in every market. Their only weakness was that the buyer never knew exactly which hatchery the nauplii or postlarvae were coming from. That created a little fear in the heart of the buyer because he was never quite sure who to go to when there was a problem. The other thing was that I could move much faster than they. I only had to consult with my pillow; they had to deal with each other. When they adopted a strategy, they stuck to it for a long time; I could change my strategy at the flick of a tail. Also, I had a shipping advantage; I was closer to the markets in Central America.
I asked my customers about the difference in survival between my seedstock and the Colombian seedstock. The maximum that anyone ever said was 15 or 20 percent, so I gave my customers 30% extra postlarvae. I compensated with price and extra larvae for what my Colombian friends were doing with quality and genetics. All the while, we planned our own genetics program.
When whitespot hit at the beginning of 1999. I reduced costs immediately without laying anyone off. We only had one farm at the time. I decided the farm would be a place to produce broodstock until things got better. I said, “we have tons of larvae and a dead farm. Let’s put the larvae in there and let every animal that wants to die—die—and harvest the survivors.” Luiz Faria was the brain behind this concept. From the first batch of 200 million PLs that we stocked, we obtained 2,500 broodstock. One out of every 80,000. We fed them fresh, virus-infected shrimp. We stressed them with low oxygen. We did everything we could to kill them. We examined the 2,500 survivors with PCR equipment from Taiwan. We learned that after the first infection seventy percent of the survivors were negative for whitespot. We fed them only virus-infected shrimp for 35 days. Amazingly, 90% of the survivors were free of whitespot. They were passing the virus right through their systems. Those survivors became the basis of our MegaLarva seedstock. We started selling MegaLarva and naups everywhere in Latin America. We had an animal that survived whitespot better than anyone else’s. In the fourth generation of this stock, we shifted our emphasis from resistance to growth, and we’re now producing PLs that regularly grow 1.5 grams a week, where originally they were growing 0.7 grams a week. Survivals are now up to 30 to 60%, back to where they were before whitespot. Right now from our 2,000 hectares of ponds (6 farms, one in Honduras with 350 hectares, two in Nicaragua with a total of 600 hectares and three in Panama with a total of 1,200 hectares), 50% of production is 30/40 count, or 28-gram animals. And we produced some 40-gram animals. Next year, we will put more production into 20/30s. Eventually, we want to do 3,000 hectares in Nicaragua and Honduras and 3,000 hectares in Panama. We opened a new processing plant in Panama City on November 19, 2005.
Shrimp News: Are you working on any new projects?
Bolivar Martinez: We’re working on a pilot-scale, hyper-intensive project that should allow us to grow shrimp for 50 cents a pound. We have land in eastern Venezuela, Falcon State, for the hyper-intensive shrimp farm, a closed system farm, Belize Aquaculture-style.
I’m going to start a fast-food shrimp restaurant. We’re going to call it GAMBAS, the Spanish word for shrimp, and hope to become the Kentucky Fried Chicken of shrimp. We are going to test the concept in Panama because that’s where I live, and then we hope to expand it into the United States. We hope to build our first store in Panama City in 2006 and open it 2007.
On July 11, 2006, I received this update from Boli: “The only skill I needed was to have a good eye for the most talented in their different specialties, put them together, motivate them and let them play like the Chicago Bulls.”
Information: José Bolivar Martinez, Farallon Aquaculture, P.O. Box 87-3872, Panama City 7, Panama (phone 507-271-3600, fax 507-271-3602, email email@example.com, webpage http://farallonaquaculture.com).