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On February 1, 2007, I interviewed Durwood Dugger, a shrimp farming consultant and one of the pioneers of shrimp farming in the Western Hemisphere. Durwood, 60, has worked on more than 50 shrimp farming projects in the Western Hemisphere.
Shrimp News: What attracted you to aquaculture and shrimp farming?
Durwood Dugger: I’m a second-generation water person. My father was born near and grew up fishing the edges of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. We fished together under the shade of the cypress trees in a homemade, wooden boat. No motor, we paddled. When I was 11, we moved to Florida and lived on a small marshy estuary of the Trout River, a tributary of the St. Johns River, near Jacksonville. I literally spent puberty in the marshes of the north Florida coast. I spent a large part of my youth tromping around in black silt marsh creeks, collecting marine and estuarine species. Girls were about the only thing that would get me out of the water.
I was a marine biologist/naturalist before I knew what one was. I held, grew and even bred some estuarine organisms in my aquaria. In 1960, I captured and observed the local shrimp species (Penaeus aztecus and P. setiferus) and various species of Caridean grass shrimp. I was an avid scuba and free diver by 16. At 17, my nascent aquaculture career almost ended when I ran out of air at 125 feet in a sinkhole spring cave in northern Florida. I surfaced on my last breath of air, discovering that I have unusually large lung capacity, which I still use to regularly free dive to 80 feet plus. I grew up watching Sea Hunt with Mike Nelson (Lloyd Bridges) and reading Popular Science’s predictions of a future where we had underwater cities. It was only natural that I was hooked on “aquaculture” before I ever even heard the word. College was more of an addendum to what was already my passion.
Shrimp News: Where did you go to college?
Durwood Dugger: I went to Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, Florida, receiving, in 1970, a bachelor’s degree with a marine biology specialty. During that period, Dr. Sheldon Dobkin, my advising professor, was growing and describing the larval stages of P. aztecus and P. duorarum. If you look back in the literature, you’ll find references to his work. Check the journal Crustaceana. As the result of that work, I was the first FAU undergraduate to publish a technical paper, also in Crustaceana. It described Macrobrachium olfersii, the bristled river prawn, with Dr. Dobkin generously serving as the junior author.
Shrimp News: What was your first job in aquaculture?
Durwood Dugger: In April 1972, after serving in the United States Air Force, I was hired by Ralston Purina at its Mariculture Research Center in Crystal River, Florida.
Shrimp News: How did you get that job?
Durwood Dugger: Dr. Dobkin told me about it. He said Purina had just completed building its infrastructure in Crystal River. Bill More (currently a shrimp farming consultant and vice president of the Aquaculture Certification Council, which certifies shrimp farms, hatcheries and processing plants) managed the Purina project, so I started pestering him for a job. After several months of pestering, he gave up and hired me because of my “persistence”. I was there for two years, during which time we identified P. vannamei as a superior species for farming. We were the first to raise it in a hatchery, the first to grow it, and the first to recognize its potential as a farmed species. We were also the first to develop and market effective commercial feeds for shrimp. My primary responsibility was to evaluate shrimp feed formulations. I designed and set up an 80-tank nutritional lab and tested over 200 feed formulations created by Dr. Bill MacGrath, an animal nutritionist at Purina’s headquarters in St. Louis. Most of the time, the six-week feed tests only required a couple hours of work a day, so I also got to work in the hatchery and around the growout ponds.
Purina had a “blue sky” approach to research and development. There was a lot of pressure and long hours, but not much emphasis on rigid form, linear research and sophisticated statistics, and no emphasis on publishing data. The focus was to find the right direction as quickly and economically as possible. We were very successful at that. We realized from the beginning that we needed to find the best species and feed and to develop a dependable seedstock supply, which would include breeding and genetics.
We tried all kinds of intensive growout systems, including round tanks, honeycombs and layered cages. I might be best remembered by the Purina staff for my love affair with PVC. In 1973, I spent around $40,000—about $400,000 in today’s dollars—building experimental systems and filters. I worked with Harvey Persyn, Ron Staha, Ron Wulff, Yoshi Hirono, Padge Beasley, Mel Mackey and Rodney Levins. Those were some very heady times for all of us. Ever since, I’ve been a proponent of controlled environments and closed systems. I also helped design an on-board holding and spawning system for our spawner collection boats and helped site Ralston Purina’s Agromarina, Inc., project in Panama, but never got to spend much time there.
Shrimp News: Why did you leave Purina?
Durwood Dugger: Dennis Zensen, vice president of new ventures at Purina, our corporate liaison, boss and biggest supporter, left the company, which convinced me that Purina would eventually drop shrimp farming. Zensen’s management ability and style played a major role in the rapid development of shrimp farming around the world.
I heard that Sun Oil Company was interested in shrimp farming, so I wrote and then called them about its project. Sun flew me up to Philadelphia for an interview, and, in April 1974, I was offered and accepted the position of Senior Biologist at Sun’s new shrimp subsidiary, Aquaprawns. We set up a small hatchery in my garage, used backyard swimming pools for broodstock and larval rearing and started producing Macrobrachium rosenbergii PLs for our first test growout. Within a few months, we completed a larger commercial scale hatchery in Port Isabel and some small pilot ponds about 20 miles away on the lands of the Brownsville Navigation District. This project produced some firsts in shrimp farming: we were the first to use the Neilsen Fish Pump to harvest our ponds and we did the first national test marketing of M. rosenbergi in the USA. The project lasted from 1974 to 1978. Throughout 1979, Sun sought a buyer for the project—while continuing to pay my regular salary just to make sure the door was locked, which was very generous of them. When they could not find a buyer, I made them an offer for the hatchery side of the business, which they accepted, and I became an entrepreneur. It became my first company, Commercial Shrimp Culture International (CSCI).
I started it with one of my Aquaprawns employees and friend, Michael Roegge, a recent Texas A&M M.Sc. graduate, and some very brave local business people/investors, including my accountant, Barton Nott, and one of his clients, Ralph “Rudy” Rudesal. All of us eventually had our savings tied up in CSCI. We used the former Aquaprawns hatchery to produce and sell M. rosenbergii PLs all over the USA and Mexico. Besides working with both freshwater prawns and marine shrimp, we also examined the commercial potential of other species, like spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), shovelnose lobster (Scyllarides nodifer) and about six species of marine ornamental shrimp.
CSCI really got moving in late 1979 with a contract from Amfac, a Hawaiian company, and some private investors that were interested in intensive marine shrimp farming. Mike Roegge and I designed and developed a three-phase system for them. It used round tanks with double-inflated covers.
Using a meat grinder as a feed extruder and a homemade solar feed dryer, we formulated and made our own experimental intensive shrimp diets based on Dr. L. Benard Colvin’s formulas at the University of Arizona. Our super-intensive production system worked quite well. It was self-cleaning and used very little makeup water. We grew both P. vannamei and several strains of P. stylirostris. The stylirostris strain from Puerto Penasco, Mexico, grew the fastest and the largest. The Costa Rican and Panamanian strains came down with vibrio when their densities were increased. We learned later that the Puerto Penasco stylirostris, while tolerant of vibrio, was very susceptible to viral infections like IHHN and whitespot. I would like to work with the Puerto Penasco “stylies” again. They could fill the niche for large, premium shrimp.
In the late 1970s, CSCI was a fairly hot commodity. We were approached by several companies that wanted to buy us out. One was Marine Nutrition Systems, Inc., a publicly traded company out of Denver, Colorado. It was founded and headed by Jim Kitchell. When we finally met to negotiate the buyout, I was surprised to learn that he was the son of Alice Kenslow-Murphy, who was the algologist that produced the diatoms and algae for the first shrimp hatchery experiments at the National Marine Fisheries Lab in Galveston, Texas, in the early 1970s. Alice first worked with Harry Cook and then Corny Mock and was an essential part of “Galveston” hatchery technology. Unfortunately, we did not accept Jim’s offer.
Shortly thereafter, along came Hurricane Allen, and it wiped us off the face of the map. We had two mobile homes, one for an office and the other for a lab. They were reduced to I-beam frames with toilets. We licked our wounds, applied for a grant and got a couple hundred thousand dollars from the USA Small Business Administration to start a new project. When I say “we” in this interview obviously it includes project partners and staff, but it also included my ex-wife Bonnie and my two daughters Sonya and Denise who all worked in their spare time on many of my numerous shrimp farming projects.
With the SBA Disaster Loan we moved inland and built a freshwater prawn farm. We switched to prawns because the site we wanted to use for shrimp belonged to the Brownsville Navigation District and was not available at the time. We set up near Los Fresnos, Texas, built 100 acres of ponds and sold prawns all over the United States. Sun had done a study that showed a good market for M. rosenbergii at white tablecloth restaurants at $5 a pound, head-on. While the study showed there was a national market, it was not comprehensive enough to show how large that market was. It turned out to be less than 5% of the size of the marine shrimp market.
We also grew some P. vannamei and P. setiferus in a couple of freshwater ponds. The vannamei grew remarkably well, much better than the setiferus. As far as I know, in 1981-1982, we were the first company in the world to grow penaeid shrimp in freshwater. It might have happened before that in Ecuador—during an El Niño, when salinities drop to almost zero—but I think we were the first to intentionally grow them in freshwater. We added critical trace minerals to our feeds. Whether or not that helped, we didn’t determine, but we did have good growth and survival.
We also experimented with tilapia/prawn polyculture. What was intended to be a two-pond prawn/tilapia polyculture experiment, ended up with tilapia from one end of the prawn farm to the other within two years. It made about as much sense as cultivating sand spurs in a nudist colony.
Another of CSCI’s notable achievements was the development of a student intern program. Students paid a fee to work with us for three months. Dr. Paul Maugle at the University of Rhode Island sent us some students from Colombia and Guatemala. We also had students from Texas A&M, from the Institute of Technology in Monterey, Mexico, and even a Kuwaiti prince from the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research. A number of them went on to successful aquaculture careers.
In 1984, CSCI submitted a proposal to the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) about using its dredge material containment ponds along the Brownsville Ship Channel for shrimp farming. To our surprise we got an immediate response of interest. We made a couple of presentations and when everything looked like it was a done deal, a politically motivated revenge attack on the COE stopped our project. In 1985, with the nation in an economic recession and interest rates rapidly moving past 12% on our notes, we ran out of money.
I was the vice president of the World Aquaculture Society in 1985 and served on its board for eight years. I also did occasional, short-term consulting in Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Bangladesh.
I moved back to Florida to take care of my mother, who had developed cancer, and opened negotiations with a company named MariQuest about forming a new shrimp farming company. Earlier, MariQuest was one of the companies that had considered buying CSCI—but it couldn’t make a deal with the bank. Then the COE contacted me and said that the political adversary who had stopped the previous project had moved on. COE was ready to develop a shrimp farm demonstration project on its dredge containment lands along the Brownsville Shipping Channel. The prospective contractor had to have a significant financial base, however, which left me out. I told MariQuest Vice President Sy Garban about the COE project. MariQuest’s parent company, a commercial real estate developer, had the financial basis to satisfy the COE and it got the contract. The contract was to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of shrimp farming on dredge material containment areas. Under the MariQuest/COE contract, I designed, supervised construction and was the project manager for the Containment Area Aquaculture Program (CAAP) funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1986-1989.
We examined the technical and the economic feasibility of using dredge material containment ponds for shrimp farming during periods when the ponds were lying idle, which, on average, was seven out of eight years. Our project had two big ponds (104 and 134 acres), modified from dredge containment ponds. We also had a five-acre, aerated, intensive nursery pond. It was a commercial-scale demonstration project; I was director of mariculture for MariQuest at this point. We bought our shrimp seedstock from various places, but mostly from Ralston Purina’s Agromarina hatchery in Panama, and produced over 1,000 pounds of shrimp per acre.
In Brownsville, Texas, the growout season for tropical shrimp runs from April through November. We learned that there were two coolwater shrimp species (P. penicillatus and P. orientalis, now called P. chinensis) that might tolerate south Texas winter temperatures that occasionally fall below freezing. We found suppliers for them in Taiwan and China and had 600 boxes of PLs flown from Taipei to Los Angeles. We used a local marine tropical fish importer’s facilities to exchange the water and reoxygenate the boxes and then flew them to Brownsville in a chartered Boeing 727. The shrimp arrived in good shape with high survivals in spite of the long ordeal—theirs and ours. That winter was a good test of their cold tolerance. We had a hard freeze. Only a few shrimp survived.
In an effort to increase per acre income, we did some small-scale experiments with clams and oysters in the shrimp ponds. Technically the experiments were very successful. The projected production numbers and income were staggering as long as you kept oxygen levels high. The shrimp ate the molluscan pseudo feces like it was candy. We wanted to expand this project, but were dead-ended by the Texas State Health Department.
We made notable advancements in automated feeding (a boat-mounted blower system), automated harvesting (138,000 pounds of shrimp mechanically harvested from one pond in 28 hours) and managing and harvesting very large shrimp ponds. Our harvest system used a modified Nielsen Fish Pump, coupled with a block ice crusher/blower and two semi-trailer trucks to continually shuttle shrimp from the harvest area to processing plants. It worked so well that the local processors/packers like High Seas continued to evolve this system.
In general the project went very well, but did not show a great economic return, mostly because of the restrictions in the government contract that prevented the project from being run more like a real shrimp farm business.
In 1989, the company that owned MariQuest folded during a California real estate bust and took MariQuest down with it. The COE project was not concluded at that point because the public outreach portion of the mission statement had just begun. The COE asked me to complete the remaining part of the defaulted MariQuest contract. I set up another company called Cultured Seafood Group, Inc., and completed the remaining tasks of the original contract. The final task was a national workshop on containment area aquaculture in 1991. After the workshop, my involvement with the project ended. A Chinese company took over the site lease, but I don’t think it ever grew any shrimp. New environmental laws requiring greater setbacks from the mean high tide made it impossible to permit the project in later years.
Once the CAAP project was completed, I continued with Cultured Seafood Group, Inc., as a shrimp and aquaculture consulting company. I published a report titled The Commercial Feasibility of Aquaculture in Pecos County and Far West Texas for the Texas A&M Agriculture Extension Service and then turned it into an article for Aquaculture Magazine titled “Aquaculture in the Permian Sea: A Texas Resource”. In 1991, I wrote another long article for Aquaculture Magazine on the history, the limitations and the direction of shrimp farming in Mexico titled “An Emerging Shrimp Farming Industry in Mexico—A View From The North”. That article was also published in Aquacultura Internacional and resulted in a number of contracts for me in Mexico.
I found that publishing articles on what I knew was far more efficient and less expensive than advertising my consulting services. I authored a paper titled Seedstock Production: The Key to Competitive Shrimp Production and presented it at the International Symposium on Shrimp Larvae Hatcheries in Mexico in December 1991. It led to a contract to design a very large SPF shrimp maturation and spawning facility with a series of satellite larval rearing hatcheries for the Mexican Department of Fisheries (PESCA). Between 1990 and 1996, I did a lot of report writing and a lot of consulting work on the east, west and Yucatan coasts of Mexico. I had some work in Panama (appraising General Manuel Noriega’s shrimp farm for private investors) and did some technology audits for farmers trying to intensify production. I also did some work in Colombia and Venezuela between 1991 and 1996. I closed Cultured Seafood Group (a Texas corporation) in 1996 when I moved to back to Florida to be closer to my dad whose health was failing.
Early on in my career I was befriended by Dr. Harold Webber at the World Mariculture Society Meeting that he hosted in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 1977. A true Renaissance man, Dr. Webber held numerous patents in far-ranging areas from metallurgy to aquaculture. He was a gifted speaker, a visionary, and a highly successful shrimp farming consultant. Harold was one of the first aquaculture consultants. I think most of the Fortune 500 companies hired him at one time or another to produce reports on the feasibility of aquaculture. He became my mentor and we worked on numerous aquaculture consulting projects together in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Harold and I were working in Ecuador when there were only two shrimp farms in the country: Peter Shane’s farm with the Morrison brothers and Empacadora Nacional, which was owned by Harry and Jeffery Graham, our clients. Since then, my career has been a blend of professional employment and contract consulting.
In 1996, I received offers to work for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida, and for ImmuDyne, Inc., a Houston based nutriceutical company founded and run by Byron Donzis and James Wood, which used its patented form of purified Beta 1,3-D Glucan for immune system boosting in humans. The company’s principals thought there might be an opportunity for its beta glucan products with shrimp because, at the time, the shrimp whitespot virus was becoming an international problem. Mr. Wood recruited me as vice president of Aquaculture Business Development to develop beta glucan products for the shrimp, food fish and the tropical fish farming industries. One of the terms of my employment was that I could be based anywhere as long I maintained effective Internet and phone communication with ImmuDyne’s Houston office.
Mr. Wood’s flexibility allowed me to also work with Dr. David Vaughn at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, where I helped with the development of its shrimp farming and aquaculture education program that became known as ACTED (Aquaculture Center for Training, Education and Development). I provided technical services part of each day for both. Since most aquaculture positions require more than 12 hours a day I didn’t see this as a hardship.
Even though I had two employers, I set up another company called BioCepts International, Inc. (BCI), to handle the occasional consulting contracts that came my way.
ImmuDyne became the target of a successful hostile takeover and the new principals were not interested in aquaculture. I continued to work half days for the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, as an instructor in their aquaculture classes, and the rest of the day I developed aquaculture consulting contracts for BioCepts. While teaching shrimp farming courses at Harbor Branch, I met Dr. Darryl Jory. Darryl was also an aquaculture consultant/writer with lots of contacts in Central and South America. Together we were even more successful in turning our contacts into contracts, and we began a loose partnership in BioCepts that continues to this day.
Shrimp News: At the BioCepts webpage, I see you have worked on over fifty projects. What were some of the highlights of those contracts?
Durwood Dugger: I’ve covered a lot of my early work already. Since 1998 we have done consulting for various groups. We did some work for Ladex Corporation, which owns a large, vertically integrated shrimp farming operation in Guatemala. It was one of the first vertically integrated shrimp farming operations in Central America with a feed mill, hatcheries, processing and packing plants and its own brands of shrimp. When their pond system production started declining in the late 1990s, we were one of several companies that they brought in to increase production. Our contribution included redesigning their water intake system to eliminate predators and competitors, like the mussels that had carpeted the pond bottoms. We also worked with their hatchery system to help make it more biosecure and with their nutritionist to improve the stability and nutrition of their feeds.
We had two contracts with U.S. Standard Seafood, a company in Miami. We designed a containerized, self-contained portable ocean transport system for shipping high volumes of P. vannamei PLs from the company’s Bonaire hatchery to its shrimp farms near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela.
At this same time, I was also on the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center’s Aquaculture Advisory Council, which had been trying to put together an inland freshwater P. vannamei project for years. Frank (Sonny) Williamson (http://www.florida-agriculture.com/news/frank_williamson.htm), a leader of the Florida citrus and cattle industry was the prime mover and the largest project donor behind a grant to find new crops to augment the declining citrus and cattle industries in Florida. The original grant was written by Dr. Calvin Arnold, Dr. Ferdinand Wirth, Mike Ednoff, LeRoy Creswell and some local aquaculturists. The legislature included funds for the project in the State budget for four years in a row, but the project was always vetoed by Governor Jeb Bush. Then in 2002, to everyone’s shock, it got funded because of public response to media coverage in December 2001 showing a strong public interest in shrimp aquaculture development. A shrimp farming workshop sponsored by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that year had been standing room only.
The project design and management contract was put out for competitive bid and BioCepts eventually won the contract. Dr. Ferdinand Wirth, a University of Florida aquaculture economist, administered the grant and oversaw the University’s interest in the project and the economic and marketing analysis research studies related to selling and marketing the project’s shrimp. LeRoy Creswell, the local Sea Grant county agent, was responsible for the public outreach portion of the grant. The University of Florida and BioCepts comanaged the project. We built an intensive nursery in a greenhouse and four, lined raceways with paddlewheel aerators. Our water came from a 1,200-foot-deep freshwater well. We built and operated the project for two years and published a 120-page report on it (http://www.floridaaquaculture.com/pub.htm).
BioCepts also designed a 1,600-hectare shrimp farm in Venezuela, but Hugo Cháves, the president of the country, and his political changes conflicted with the goals of the project investors, and the farm was never built.
From 2004 to 2006, BioCepts worked on two contracts with one of the world’s largest seafood buyers. One of those contracts was for a comprehensive review of the state-of-the-art of spiny lobster farming, another was for an economic feasibility study on designing, developing and operating a closed system, high-density spiny lobster farm that might demonstrate the commercial feasibility of spiny lobster farming.
Finally, I have recently served as an expert witness for several legal firms involved in aquaculture and marine science related litigation. More importantly BCI has also begun its own self-funded research on spiny lobster production technology. We have also been looking at the economic feasibility of algae-based biofuel production systems.
Information: Durwood Dugger, President, BioCepts International, Inc., 947 Sandpiper Lane, Vero Beach, FL 32963 USA (phone 772-332-1046, fax 772-234-8966, email firstname.lastname@example.org, webpage http://www.biocepts.com).