From Catfish Farmer to Shrimp Farmer to Director of Quality
Global Aquaculture Alliance
At the World Aquaculture Society Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, USA(February 21-25, 2013), I interviewed Jeff Peterson, Director of Quality Control at the Global Aquaculture Society.
Shrimp News: Hi Jeff, where were you born and where did you grow up?
Jeff Peterson: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in 1944, and raised on Boston’s north shore. My dad was an airline pilot with Northeast Airlines, which later merged with Delta Air Lines. I lived in Boston until I graduated from high school: St. Johns Preparatory School, an all-boy, Catholic prep school. I was interested in becoming a doctor and got into the pre-med program at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I veered away from medicine, however, and began to focus on biology, graduating in four years, which is a big accomplishment by today’s standards, then drifted around southeastern Pennsylvania for a couple of years until I got a job with a pharmaceutical company. After a few more twists and turns, I moved to the state of Florida, where my parents were living. With my interest in biology, I got very interested in marine biology. I went to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, and pursued a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology and also got a job with a small, aquatic research laboratory.
Two really important things happened at the aquatic research laboratory: I met the lady that I eventually married “Teen”, who was my boss at the time; and through a connection with a friend at the lab, I learned about a company that was developing a recirculation aquaculture system for catfish. The catfish people were all engineers and needed a biologist, and I got the job. They built a recirculation facility in Lantana, Florida, USA. It was called AEO Systems (Aquatic Ecological and Oceanographic Systems). Built in the early 1970s, the system—even by today’s standards—was state-of-the-art. We had forced air aeration, dissolved air floc floatation removal devices, stainless steel walls, and concrete bottom growout tanks, each the size of a tennis court. The water was pumped from the tanks and treated in an adjacent aeration tower and a flocculation filtration device and then returned to the tanks. We had a processing plant and produced a million pounds of catfish a year. We were buying fingerlings from catfish hatcheries in the Mississippi Delta and using our own eighteen-wheel truck to transport them to Florida. The company was successful, and we produced and processed a lot of fish. We de-headed the fish, skinned them and sold them bone-in as whole fish. Catfish processors don’t do that anymore. Today it’s mostly filets. The wholesale price back then was about sixty-five cents a pound, which, amazingly, is very close to today’s wholesale price for catfish.
It was very expensive to treat our water. We used a lot of electrical power for aeration and filtration. During the oil embargo of 1973/1974, the price of electricity doubled. We tried to modify our system to adjust it to the increasing power costs, but we just could not do it quickly enough. We were competing with Lake Okeechobee wild-caught catfish and could not raise our prices. To compete, we would have had to raise a lot of money and expand. That did not happen, and after six years, some of them really profitable years, we went out of business.
The bank that was trying to sell the farm kept me on as a sales agent, explainer and a potential manager for a new owner, which is what I was hoping for. In 1978, the president of the bank called me up and said I think you should go to this World Mariculture Society (later named the World Aquaculture Society) meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, and see if we can peddle this thing. So I went up to Atlanta, checked in at the convention hotel, realized that I didn’t have a clue about how to sell a catfish farm and went down to the bar. Before I purchased my first beer, I heard a shout from the pool table at the back of the bar. “Hey, Jeff Peterson is that you?”
It was Ed Scura, who went on to start Shrimp Improvement Systems, currently one of the most successful shrimp broodstock companies in the world, now owned by CP Prima in Indonesia. We were good friends and classmates at Villanova University. I had not seen or corresponded with him for about twelve years. He was playing pool with Ed McSweeney, who eventually went into freshwater prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) farming, later became a manager at Amorient Aquafarm in Hawaii and after several years, decided to return to Florida and get out of aquaculture. Scura had gotten a Ph.D. at the University of Miami and was now working in Hawaii. He had come to the WMS meeting to hire two people for a new project. I told him about my experience with the catfish farm. Neither one of us knew what the other had been doing for the past twelve years. Before the night was over, he asked if I would come to Hawaii for a couple weeks to see what he was doing and to see if I might like come there for a job. I was really excited about that prospect because it sounded a lot better than trying to peddle a catfish farm. At the time, I was writing my thesis for my Master’s Degree at Florida Atlantic University. I went to Hawaii, and after two days, I called my wife and told her to start packing. I took the job.
That’s when Ed was starting a freshwater prawn and oyster farm called Aquatic Farms, which is still in business today as a consulting company under different management. He was looking for a farm manager and in discussions with Art Lowe, a New York investment banker, about a bigger project. Ed was looking for candidates to train at Aquatic Farms and then move into the larger project. I wound up working at Aquatic Farms, growing prawns and oysters and working on the design of the bigger project with Art Lowe, called Lowe Aquafarms. My family moved over to Hawaii, and at this point, I met up with Ed’s collaborator, Andy Kuljis, who is still running Aquatic Farms as a consultant, and got to know Takuji Fujimura, a pioneering prawn hatchery specialist at Hawaii’s Anuenue Research Center on Sand Island outside of Honolulu.
At the time, the state of Hawaii was very interested in developing an aquaculture industry, especially a freshwater prawn farming industry. Art Lowe saw an advertisement for a soon to be vacated sugar cane plantation in Kuhuku, Hawaii, and leased it as a corn silage operation and potential prawn farm site. The manager of that farm was Joe Tabrah, an agriculture expert, who is currently the manager of Shrimp Improvement Systems’ broodstock operations in Hawaii. Joe was super interested in aquaculture because there was a low piece of ground on the sugar cane farm that was not good for sugar or corn, but would be great for aquaculture because it had access to saltwater and freshwater. Art and Joe built what, at the time, was the largest freshwater farm in the Western Hemisphere. It was over one hundred acres, all carefully designed with multi-stage production ponds. It was really an exciting and fun business for four or five years. It was great to work with Joe, who became one of my best friends and a mentor. He was smart, a visionary and a really good intuitive biologist. Aquatic Farms was consulting with Art Lowe on the construction and development of the new prawn farm. After a six-month training period I left Aquatic Farms and started my new job as farm manager at Lowe Aquafarms working with Joe.
We were purchasing postlarval prawns from Aquatic Farms and the State’s Anuenue Research Center and realized that we had to have our own hatchery. So we built one. We had a couple of good hatchery people, but the one who really made a difference was Nick Carpenter, who went on to manage Belize Aquaculture’s big marine shrimp hatchery, where he remains today. Lowe Aquafarms really took off, prospering on the sale of live prawns. We would do partial seine harvests of large prawns, move them into holding tanks, and the buyers would come out to the farm and buy them live. We would harvest almost every day. We sold to markets, resorts, restaurants and the public.
In 1980 or 1981, Bill MacDonald, an investor, bought a big piece of Lowe Aquafarms, and eventually changed its name to Amorient Aquafarm, Inc.
We were all interested in aquaculture and began to hear about the expansion of shrimp farming that was going on around the world, especially in Ecuador. Art Lowe was on a plane somewhere, sitting next to a guy from Ecuador, and they got talking about aquaculture. Art said he had a big “shrimp” project in Hawaii, which was actually his big “freshwater prawn” project. The guy from Ecuador thought he meant marine shrimp, and invited Art down to Ecuador to see what he could do with shrimp. He and our engineer Bruce McElhoe visited Ecuador to check things out and found that shrimp farming was exploding there. Art felt there were big opportunities in shrimp farming in Ecuador, so he sent Bruce and Joe to Ecuador to explore some of those opportunities. Eventually, they found a site on the way to Machala, in Guayas Province, near the Taura River, about an hour south of Guayaquil, and built 100 hectares of ponds and a pump station. Joe hired Russ Allen as a biologist and farm manager. Russ had built a lot of shrimp farms in Ecuador, and he currently owns one of the only successful shrimp farms in the United States.
The name of the farm was AquaSpecies, S.A. Joe and Russ needed additional help, so I was invited down to Ecuador to help manage the farm for a year. This was 1982. My wife and two kids also came to Ecuador. The project really took off. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Everything we did worked. Prices were high. Shrimp growth was good. It was crazy. We built out the farm with operating profits from the sales of shrimp. We were getting something like $5 to $6 wholesale for our shrimp. The product was fabulously successful. We expanded the farm. In 1983, we had a huge El Niño. It rained something like twelve feet that year, and we struggled mightily just to keep things going. We got the farm up to about 250 hectares and started thinking about building a hatchery. Things were good; the shrimp business was booming. New processing plants, hatcheries and farms were popping up everywhere.
That’s when Joe said we’ve got to change Amorient Aquafarm, the company’s freshwater prawn farm in Hawaii, into a marine shrimp farm, a Penaeus vannamei farm. The production per acre for freshwater prawns was low and there were all kinds of problems with production dynamics with them. Our senior biologist, Oswaldo Leon, and I went up to Esmeraldas in northern Ecuador, rented a shrimp trawler, loaded it with tanks and equipment and fished for P. vannamei broodstock. We caught some 250-gram animals. I had never seen such big shrimp before. Altogether we caught about 125 animals, put them in tanks on the boat, sailed them down to Guayaquil and air-freighted them to Hawaii. We wanted Nick Carpenter to learn how to work with them in the hatchery, and we wanted to learn how to grow them in Hawaii. We also wanted to build a marine shrimp hatchery in Ecuador.
Those shrimp became part of the founder stock for the Oceanic Institutes’ broodstock that eventually got shipped all over the world. Granted, OI’s founder stock also included animals from Panama and other locations. At that time there were no disease problems in Ecuador. Nick and other people in the hatchery industry quickly learned how to breed vannamei and produce postlarvae. Amorient converted its prawn farm into a marine shrimp farm. That’s when Amorient started selling shrimp from a roadside stand because the production of marine shrimp from its ponds was much greater than the production of prawns. The prices that we were getting at the stand were terrific, and those sales made a big contribution to Amorient’s bottom line.
By 1986, the farm in Ecuador had grown to 500 hectares; we built a hatchery; Nick came down to help us get the hatchery started; and we were really making good money. David Kawahigashi, a maturation specialist who came through the Aquatic Farms and Lowe Aquafarms systems, joined us in the hatchery. Today, David is a partner in a shrimp farming consulting company in Thailand called Vannamei 101. We eventually figured out how to breed vannamei in the hatchery. We hired a Colombian biologist named Jairo Llanos as production manager, who’s now the production manager for National Prawn Company in Saudi Arabia. We had a relatively small operation by Ecuadorean standards, but we were really successful and one of the industry leaders, producing around 1,600 kilos per hectare without aeration, which back then was really good. There were no disease problems.
Then around 1989 or 1990, things started to get kind of weird. We weren’t able to make the numbers that we had become accustomed to; feed conversions ratios and mortalities were creeping up and production was going down, even though we still had pretty good volume. We couldn’t figure out what was causing the drop in production. Because of all of the rain, banana farmers had started using chemicals to kill a fungus that was affecting their production, and we (the Ecuadorian shrimp industry) got into this big brouhaha with DuPont, the maker of the banana fungicide. We thought its fungicide might be getting into the water and killing our shrimp. It was Jim Brock, a researcher in Hawaii, who figured out that the fungicide was not causing the problem. He fed diseased animals from Ecuador to clean stock in Hawaii and discovered that it was a virus that was killing the shrimp. It became known as the Taura syndrome virus (TSV) because it first showed up on farms along the Taura River basin in Guayas Province. Once we discovered it was a virus, we had to go back and figure out how to clean up the shrimp. Eventually, all the shrimp farms in Ecuador and South America were infected by the virus, and that’s what started the development of specific pathogen free (SPF) shrimp and biosecurity.
This was the early 1990s, our kids were in high school, our oldest daughter was very sick with some kind of immune disease, and we had been in Ecuador for twelve years, so we decided that it was time to head back to the States. Life had been really good to us in Ecuador. We saved a lot of money, didn’t waste money on a beach house, didn’t buy a boat and didn’t invest in shrimp farming! The bloom was off the rose. We left in 1994, just as whitespot was beginning to hit the industry. The farm in Hawaii had been wiped out by the Taura virus, so I left the company and moved back to the United States. Bill MacDonald ended up selling the Ecuadorean farm to Empacadora Nacional for pennies on the dollar.
Before leaving Ecuador, shrimp sales were so strong in Hawaii that we were actually shipping processed, frozen shrimp from Ecuador to Hawaii and selling them at the roadside stand. When TSV broke in Hawaii, I said, “Oh sh..” because it was probably our shrimp that spread the Taura virus to Hawaii.
Back in the states, there was a small shrimp farming industry in South Carolina, and one 20-acre farm, Taylor Creek Shrimp Farm, was up for lease. I was pretty flush with funds and feeling very confident, so I leased it. The shrimp farmers in South Carolina were riding a wave of good prices, partially due to TSV in South America, and good production. It was before Taura got to the United States. This was around 1997. I got PLs from Harlingen Shrimp Farms in Texas, feed from Rangen in Texas and produced a great crop the first year. I made good money, nothing like I made in Ecuador, but the farm was profitable enough to pay all our living expenses, put my kids in college and buy a house in Savannah, Georgia. The future looked promising.
The second year, things did not look as good. My wife was getting a little nervous. If you’re growing shrimp in the southern United States, you only get one pay check a year and that’s only after you invest a lot of money in feed, PLs and all the other expenses that it takes to run a farm. And after you invest all that money, the whole thing can crash and you can lose your entire investment. After the second year, the Taura virus arrived in Texas, and I said “Oh sh..” again because I had seen this virus run through Ecuador and ruin our farm in Hawaii. I knew it would eventually come to South Carolina. My wife said we can’t live like this, knowing that we could be wiped out at any moment. We had backed our loans with our house and the kid’s college funds. I had fulfilled my dream of being an independent owner operator of a shrimp farm. I offered to buy the farm for half of what the owner was asking, but he decided to hold out for a better price. So I said fine, thank you very much, and I did not lease the farm for a third season. I walked away, and the next year, South Carolina got the Taura virus, thanks to our friend Mark Rosenblum at Super Shrimp in Mexico, which unintentionally sold diseased postlarvae to the shrimp farmers in the state.
After that experience, I started to look for work in the shrimp farming industry. Sandy deBeausset, who still runs the Mayasal (also called Acuamaya) shrimp farm in Guatemala, knew me and had gone to the World Aquaculture Society meeting in Thailand that year. He knew that I was available and said to Mark Rosenblum, who also attended the Bangkok meeting, that I was looking for work. Mark was looking for people to run his big farm in Mexico. He called me up from Thailand and asked me if I was interested in working for him in Mexico. And I said I might be, and he said as soon as you get back from Thailand, give me a call. I called, flew out to Arizona and went down to his farm in Mexico. It was a similar setup to what I had been doing in Ecuador. I needed a job, and I knew that I could manage his farm. I signed on, said goodbye to Savannah, moved the family to Yuma, Arizona, and tried like crazy to get his operation to work. I stayed on for a couple of years, but it just didn’t work out.
On a suggestion from Art Lowe, who was now living in Palm Springs, California, and no longer involved with the farm in Hawaii, I started talking with the guys from AquaMats, who had a product that created additional substrate in hatcheries, nurseries and shrimp ponds. They were looking for someone to sell their product around the world. They hired me; it was a great job. They said you can live anywhere you want, but you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling. We ending up moving to Amilea Island, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, where we live today. I went on the road with the AquaMats product for about four and a half or five years. It was a great product, a great idea, but unfortunately, it was easy to duplicate at a lower price. It worked well in the hatchery and nursery phase and fine in the growout phase, but frankly, it was too expensive for semi-intensive shrimp farming. We had a couple of big successes. We sold a lot to Belize Aquaculture. We sold some to the OceanBoy shrimp farm in the United States; we sold a lot to shrimp hatcheries; and it was fun taking the product around the world. I got to go to China, Indonesia and the Seychelles Islands twice. I really tried to make the product work. After a while, however, we realized that it was just not going to work out and the company shut down.
So, in 2001, I was casting around for a job again, and I called my old friend Bill More, currently certification manager for Best Aquaculture Practices division of the Global Aquaculture Alliance. We had known each other for years because of our common interest in shrimp farming. We were pretty good friends. When I called him, he said he was about to call me because GAA was starting a training program for auditors. He said we’re going to run a course in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and wanted to know if I was interested. I had to scratch around to get some money for the course and the trip, but said yes. I went as an auditor candidate. By this point, the GAA had published a code of principles for responsible shrimp farming. Seajoy’s Peter Jacobsen, a founding father of GAA, who currently farms shrimp in Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador, and Bill Herzig, currently Chief Executive Officer of Darden Aquafarm (Red Lobster), which is developing a $650 million lobster farm in Malaysia, and some other guys thought we needed to formalize our code into an inspection program and develop certification standards. That idea became the Aquaculture Certification Council, or ACC. In October 2001, Bill More and Claude Boyd, an Auburn University professor, water quality specialist and aeration expert, taught the first course to train inspectors at the Grand Hotel Guayaquil in Ecuador, one of several hotels owned by Peter Jacobsen in Latin America. The program was very rudimentary compared to what it is now. I passed the course and became one of the first ACC auditors.
The program was attractive to the early adopters like Peter Jacobsen in Ecuador, Larry Drazba in Nicaragua and Jeff Fort in Belize, but there was not much demand for the program at the time. I did some of the very first audits of shrimp farms, and frankly, I really enjoyed doing them. The problem was that the audits were so few and far between that it was hard to make a living doing them. I was augmenting the money from the audits with consulting jobs here and there, including spending two years at Belize Aquaculture as their interim Farm Manager, and all the while hoping that ACC would get going. Then in 2005 or 2006, Walmart, the huge retail operation that sold a ton of shrimp in its grocery stores, endorsed our program. That opened the floodgates, and I was doing a lot of audits, mostly in Latin America where my ability to speak Spanish really helped. Bill and Betty More were doing a wonderful job of running the program from Seattle, Washington, putting in endless hours with minimal pay. All the auditors started to get jobs. Then I started helping ACC train new auditors in Vietnam and Thailand, and, in 2009, GAA/ACC asked me to come on board full-time as director of quality control, which was really to help make the auditor program work smoothly. By then we had the shrimp standard and a processing standard, and a tilapia standard was being wrapped up and deployed.
The program caught on with a couple of big retailers and has grown exponentially ever since. My focus now is on auditor training and standards review. As we developed new species standard, I noticed that they all had similar components and needed to be consolidated. Shrimp was one standard, tilapia another and catfish still another. Salmon was in the works. It was getting confusing. I suggested that we put all the things that were the same in every species standard together into a core standard and have addendums and appendices for the individual species. If it’s a catfish pond, it’s the same as a tilapia pond; it’s the same as a pangasius pond—basically they’re all the same. If you grow cobia or barramundi in cages, it’s basically the same as growing salmon in cages. Lisa Goché, Bill More, Dan Lee, George Chamberlain and I took on the task of pulling all the individual species standards together into one uniform standard for all crustaceans and finfish, except for salmon, which will remain separate for a while because the way it’s raised differs around the world. This concept has gained a lot of acceptance. Wally Stevens and Lisa Goché, marvelous additions to the GAA team, have been instrumental in pulling this concept together, and they have the clout and knowledge of the international scene to make it work.
The next challenge will be to adopt an ecosystem approach to standards and certification. Then an entire zone, like all the shrimp farms around the Gulf of Guayaquil in Ecuador or all the salmon cages off the coast of Chile, will be managed as one entity. It’s a very ambitious goal but one that has some in the global investment community interested as it may be a way to avoid the overcrowding and poor management practices that have contributed to many of the bust and boom cycles that seem to plague (pun intended) our industry.
Information: Jeff Peterson, Director of Quality Control, Global Aquaculture Alliance/Best Aquaculture Practices, 706 North Suncoast Boulevard, Crystal River, Florida 34429, USA (phone 1-352-563-0565 and 1-904-572-4332, mobile 1-904-629-3354, fax 1-425-650-3001, email email@example.com, webpage http:// www.bestaquaculturepractices.org). Home address: Jeff Peterson, 2053 Oak Marsh Drive, Fernandina Beach, FL, 32034, USA.