On April 2, 2008, at the World Wildlife Fund’s Shrimp Dialogue Meeting in Belize City, Belize, I interviewed Linda Thornton, manager of Aqua Mar Belize, Ltd., a 1,000-acre shrimp farm in Belize. Linda also owns a 100-acre shrimp farm and is on the steering committee of the World Wildlife Fund’s shrimp dialogue. Jill Schwartz, senior communications officer for WWF, also sat in on the interview and contributed some comments and questions.
Shrimp News: Where did you go to college?
Linda Thornton: I have a bachelor’s degree in animal science/agriculture from the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois.
Shrimp News: What were your first steps into aquaculture and shrimp farming?
Linda Thornton: In 1978, in my senior year of college, I did a research project on “How To Get Rid of Swine Waste”. You kind of pick an animal to focus on when you’re in animal science and mine was swine. One of my professors came up with idea of growing freshwater prawns (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) in swine sewage lagoons. We set up a little lab in the basement of the Fisheries Building, got some prawns from Hawaii, and my professor told me to try and breed them. Well, they all died before I even bought the wine and turned on the music. Then, right before graduation, in 1979, a friend came to me and said, “There’s a man in Chicago who wants to grow shrimp, and he’s looking for people to work for him.” That was Howard Turney, the man behind the King James project, the first attempt to grow shrimp in an artificial seawater, recirculating system in the United States. I called him, and he said, “Come on over.” I was the first person that he hired.
He had a little office outside of Chicago in Addison, Illinois. Next he hired Fritz Jaenike, Kim Page, Sheryl Elam and Brad Price. Currently, Fritz Jaenike manages Harlingen Shrimp Farms in Texas; Kim Page manages the shrimp hatchery at Harlingen Shrimp Farms; and Brad Price manages a large shrimp farming operation in Ecuador. Sheryl no longer works in the industry. It was a phenomenal opportunity for us because we were all just out of college. Altogether, Howard hired ten of us kids and ten experts, and we built a phenomenal facility. We used artificial seawater in a recirculating system and brought shrimp in from Ecuador. We bred them, and we had a hatchery. Fifty Italian-American contractors invested in the project.
They always stick the girls in the algae department, and that’s where I started. They think we like to cook and keep things clean, so girls always get that role in shrimp hatcheries. Bob Brick was our boss and the project lasted two years, or so. When it closed, a few of us, Sheryl, her brother, Howard and I formed a little consulting company. We got a job in the Cayman Islands, where one of the old families wanted us to build a smaller version of the King James shrimp project. It probably would have worked because everything in the Caymans sells for about five times the price as anywhere else, but that project never came together. Next we talked with representatives of the Jamaican Government about a similar project, but nothing came from it either.
After that, Sheryl and I started a little food business. She made gourmet sauces, and I sold them at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end stores. Howard was always fascinated with Belize, so when we got some refunds from the IRS that had something to do with the unwinding of our consulting company, I decided to spend my $3,000 on a trip to Belize. In 1983, I went to Belize on vacation, spent two weeks there and had a great time. I went back home, bought a copy of your Aquaculture Digest, opened it up, and there was a little item in it that said, “Dr. John Snell of Lansing, Michigan, is looking for people to come to Belize to work on a shrimp farm.” I called him immediately and drove over to his home the next day, which was about a four-hour drive away. Snell was already in his early seventies, 73 or 74. He and his wife were very interesting people. Raised in China, his parents were missionaries—very wealthy missionaries—and he had been all over the world. He was something like the first environmental engineer that ever graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He said, “Honey, I don’t think you’ll last one week in Belize.” He wasn’t going to hire me, but his wife took him into a corner and said, “Give the girl a break,” and now I’m a Belizean citizen and have spent most of the last twenty-four years in Belize.
Some Taiwanese people in Belize had approached John with the idea of shrimp farming. He got some money from them and started General Shrimp on a 7,892-acre parcel of land that he owned. John was a very frugal man, so we built a very simple shrimp farm. When we started the hatchery, he told me to make some airstones. He didn’t want to spend the money for something as inexpensive as airstones.
General Shrimp very slowly brought a 200-acre farm and a little half-baked hatchery into production, but it was always a struggle because we had to stick to the basics and do everything ourselves. Our processing plant was really primitive, an open-air shed with a big box of ice. We produced some shrimp, but not much. Some of it was shipped to the United States. Unfortunately, General Shrimp was never a commercial success. I stayed with the company for a couple of years and left in 1986.
Jill Schwartz: What is it about Belize that made it so attractive to shrimp farmers?
Linda Thornton: With a small population of around 300,000 people, there’s not much population pressure on the land, and large parcels of coastal land were available. There are also strips of coastal land that are not good for any other kind of agriculture, but are well suited for shrimp farming. About ten years ago, I was able to buy 400 acres of land for $18,000 dollars. I built a home on that land in 2002; and about two years ago, I built a 100-acre shrimp farm on it. Basically, Belize has a lot of empty land, great water quality, available labor, and it’s close to the USA market. When you get a good Belizean worker, they are very loyal and very hard working. Importantly, the government was very pro shrimp farming. It set up land concessions for shrimp farms and granted them tax-free status. All those factors had a lot to do with the industry getting started.
Jill Schwartz: What did you do after the General Shrimp project?
Linda Thornton: In 1987, on my thirtieth birthday, I met a gentleman who became my husband. Shortly after that, we met a man, Jack Menzie, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, who came down to Belize to get into shrimp farming. Jack Menzie and Michael Duncker, the owner of Aqua Mar Belize, the farm that I manage, are two of the finest men that I’ve ever met. Jack owned a fishing camp in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a popular destination for wealthy American bass fishermen. He had started a pilot shrimp farm in a little town called La Pesca, in Tamaulipas, where Fritz Jaenike has a hatchery today. We immediately took a job with Jack. My future husband, who was recuperating from a heart bypass operation, and I lived in a little trailer, about twelve feet long. You could actually lie in bed and light the stove and brush your teeth at the same time. This was when the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii was popularizing round ponds. Jack built a half-hectare round pond with cement walls. It had a little lab/office in the middle and a tenth-of-a-hectare nursery connected to it. La Pesca was a beautiful little town. You could drive on the beach for ten miles and not see another soul. We got our seedstock from Fritz in Texas.
At the time, Americans in Mexico could not do business in Mexico without a Mexican partner. Our boss’s partner was Eduardo Cardenas, whose father just happened to be the governor of the state of Tamaulipas, so it was very easy for us to get things done. We had shrimp in the round pond for a couple of months when Hurricane Gilbert, which wiped out Jamaica and Cancun, decided to come our way. The radio said that it was going to hit somewhere between Brownsville and Houston, Texas, so we were not worried. Well, the hurricane turned south and came right at us. When hurricanes approach land on the east coast of Mexico, they pile up water on their northern edge and suck it out on the southern edge. We were on the southern edge, and Gilbert sucked our river dry. We had some aeration equipment, but relied mostly on water exchange to keep oxygen levels high in the ponds. With no water to pump, we were afraid we were going to lose all our shrimp, so we turned on our emergency generator, aerated as much as we could and started an emergency harvest. We hired every little kid in town to pick shrimp from the bottom of pond. The harvest was a grand success. We actually got 9,000 to 10,000 pounds of tails. Everyone was happy because this was the prototype for a project that Jack wanted to build in Costa Rica, but it was the end of the pilot project in La Pesca, where it got too cold to grow shrimp over the winter. Jack sent us on a little trip, saying “Find me a good site to farm shrimp,” so we began looking at sites in southern Mexico, on the west coast, the Pacific Coast, in the state of Chiapas. We did a mega tour of Mexico, reported back to Jack, and then went to Belize.
Back in Belize, we were contacted by Fritz’s bosses, Jack and Sonny Brown, who wanted to start a shrimp project in Belize. Bobby Edwards had built four, one-acre ponds in Belize for the Browns, and they hired us to run it. We ran the prototype ponds and they did okay.
The farm was near the north end of the Placencia Peninsula, right next to Belize Aquaculture, Barry Bowen’s farm. We had all the money in the world. These guys were Texas oilmen. We had first-class electricians come down from the USA to set everything up. The name of the farm was Laguna Madre Belize. We built twelve, four-acre, circular ponds. We did okay, producing 9,000 to 10,000 pounds an acre per crop.
The sludge around the center drains was like chocolate pudding; we had to use shovels to cut channels through it during harvests. We built a small hatchery and hired John Skidmore to run it. John now owns a small, tropical fish farm in Florida. John’s father worked with the USA Embassy in Belize, and he became our liaison with the government. We sent John up to Fritz’s Harlingen Shrimp Farms to learn how to run a hatchery. We built a little processing plant, too. In 1991 , I left that project. Basically, I was let go because my husband had started a pig farm, and the owners were afraid that I would spend too much time thinking about the pig farm and not enough time thinking about the shrimp farm. Jerome Thompson (1937–2005), who went on to a long career in shrimp farming, was my replacement. Jerry tried to run the circular ponds at high density, but with extensive management, and that didn’t work, so he was let go after a short time. Jerry was also one of our first consultants on the King James project in Chicago.
We ran the pig farm for about a year and a half, producing the best pigs in Belize. Then, in 1994, we were in a boat crash and my husband was killed, and I received a bad spinal injury, and had to go back to the states to recuperate. It took me about four months to learn how to walk again. We were in the bow of the boat. The other boat hit us head on, went right over the top of us and killed two other men in our boat. My neck was fractured and I was paralyzed. I went to Chicago and was in the hospital for about four months. I stayed with Mom and Dad for about a year.
When I recovered, I didn’t really know what to do, so I went back to Belize, where I got depressed as hell, so I when back to Chicago, and got depressed as hell there, too. So I went back to Belize, still not knowing what I was going to do. I got a job with Soren Sorenson, who at the time was the largest mango farmer in the world. The mango farm was right next to the property that General Shrimp occupied. He wanted to start a shrimp farm, so he hired me. I think I only made $500 a month, but I needed something, so I took the job. Sorenson had a bad reputation of not paying people. I made an arrangement to be paid on the first of month. We built four small ponds. We used to call it the “No-F” shrimp farm because we had no feed, no fuel, no fertilizer and no financing. That job lasted three months. I got paid the first month, but he was late with his payments the second and third months, so I quit.
Then, in April 1996, Mr. Duncker asked me if I wanted to work for him. He had purchased Aqua Mar from Calvin Goldsmith, a young man from Houston, who had built a beautiful, little, intensive, shrimp farm. The day his first shrimp arrived for stocking, he dropped dead from a heart attack right beside the delivery truck. Some money was owed to Mr. Duncker, so he took over the farm. He really didn’t want the farm. He was already a banana farmer and a citrus farmer. He came to me and asked if I would like to work for him. But he already had a guy working for him that I didn’t think very highly of, who would have been my boss. I said, “No thanks, I know ten times as much about shrimp farming as that guy.” I told Mr. Duncker that I could do the job by myself. He came back to me the next day and said would you work for me if it’s just you. And I said, “Yes, thank you.” So I started working for Mr. Duncker and continue working for him today, more than eleven years now.
At that time, the farm was 80 acres or so. It was semi-intensive and really easy to manage. If we didn’t get 95% survivals, we were really surprised. There were no diseases and no problems. We got our seed from Harlingen Shrimp Farms, from my old buddy Fritz. We would fly the postlarvae in from Texas. We were growing the most beautiful shrimp in the world. They were really gorgeous; we didn’t even have IHHN, nothing. Then, we built what we called a “short hatchery”. We would get PL ones and twos from a hatchery in El Salvador and finish them off in the short hatchery. That was cheaper than flying PLs in from Texas. Then Taura hit and we immediately had to stop bringing in shrimp from other countries. At that time, however, Nova and Belize Aquaculture had hatcheries in Belize, so we started buying seedstock from them. David Drennan was running the Belize Aquaculture hatchery, and Robins McIntosh was running the farm.
Then, around 1997 or 1998, we really started expanding Aqua Mar. Eventually, we expanded to our current size of 1,000 acres with four systems: extensive, semi-intensive, intensive in dirt ponds and intensive in lined ponds. We were making a lot of money. They were the good old days when we got big money for 20-gram shrimp.
I remember when the IHHN virus first hit Belize. I had gotten some PLs from Robins McIntosh at Belize Aquaculture and at harvest time I noticed all kinds of deformities, like twisted rostrums and bubbleheads, not the perfect shrimp that we had become accustomed to harvesting. It was IHHN and it was the first time that we had seen a disease. It wasn’t an economic failure, but the animals weren’t perfect either.
Shrimp News: Do you use PDP piping in the lined ponds?
Linda Thornton: Yes, PDP piping is the best thing that Rod McNeil ever showed us. But if anyone wants some “AquaMats”, another of Rod’s products, I have about $300,000 of them for sale. “AquaMats” were a lovely idea, and in nurseries and hatcheries they work great, but during growout the shrimp would never get up into them the way wild shrimp get up into the seagrass.
Jill Schwartz: Were Americans welcomed in Belize during the early days of shrimp farming?
Linda Thornton: Yes, the welcome mat was out for Americans. We had the technology, not that we knew that much, and they had the money.
Shrimp News: How much shrimp does Belize produce?
Linda Thornton: In 2006, Belize produced almost 23 million pounds of whole shrimp. In 2007, with the closing of the Nova farm, that figure dropped to just over 15 million pounds.
Shrimp News: Tell me about your farm.
Linda Thornton: My farm is on the 400 acres that I bought for $18,000, where my house is—where I originally grew pigs. Everyone always told me to build a shrimp farm on the land, and I always told them that you had to be crazy to actually own a shrimp farm. But when I turned fifty, which was last year, I decided to build a farm. I built four, twenty-five acre ponds and stocked them extensively with about five PLs per square meter. I don’t change any water, and I don’t use any aeration, but I do feed the shrimp. For my first crop, I told the bank I would produce 100,000 pounds, and I produced 101,000 pounds, mostly 21/25s. I thought it was a great success. Last year, I got started very late. This year, my goal is to produce 16/20s. My site is limited because I pump out of a brackish river that turns fresh during the rainy season. So I fill my ponds during the dry season, don’t exchange any water during growout, and then harvest in October. Two men run the whole operation. We talk in the morning and then I go to work at Aqua Mar. When I come home in the evening, they tell me how their day went and we take it from there. I hire a harvest crew from Aqua Mar, and Aqua Mar does all my processing and marketing.
Shrimp News: Where do you get your feed?
Linda Thornton: We buy from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in Belize City and from ARECA in Guatemala.
Shrimp News: How’s the Belizean shrimp farming industry doing in this environment of very low shrimp prices?
Linda Thornton: It’s a struggle right now. We’re analyzing every aspect of the business, looking for ways to save money, looking for ways to make more money. We’re looking at power costs; we’re looking at feed conversions. Our feed costs have gone up 30 to 40 percent since January 2008! Diseases are not much of a problem. We are in a good position to supply the Mexican market, which started out as a seasonal market during the cooler months, and now we supply it almost year round. The Mexican buyers come to our farms and buy small shrimp, 12 to 15-gram animals, head-on, right out of the pond. They ice them up and take them back across the border. Most of the shrimp farms in Belize sell to the Mexicans. The Mexican buyers say our shrimp is better than the farmed and boat-caught shrimp in Mexico. The quality of Belizean shrimp is fantastic. All the farms have their special markets. We sell a lot to Jamaica because Mr. Duncker is Jamaican and has good contacts there. The USA is our worst market. Offering prices are lower there than anywhere else in the world. Jamaica works for us because we’re part of CARICOM (the Caribbean common market). When the Jamaicans buy shrimp from the USA, they have to pay a duty, but when they buy it from us, since we’re both members of CARICOM, there’s no duty. We get a better price than we would get in the USA, and the Jamaicans get a better price than they would from the USA, so it’s a win-win situation.
Shrimp News: What do you think of the WWF shrimp standards program?
Linda Thornton: WWF’s Jason Clay approached the Belizean shrimp farming industry several years ago with the idea that Belize would make a good place to develop shrimp farming standards. We had a few visits from WWF and came to the conclusion that the American market and the USA importers weren’t ready for the green experience. We didn’t think the consumer was ready to pay a 20 to 30% premium for certified shrimp. At the time, we were really not marketing our shrimp. Buyers would come and buy it, and that was pretty much it.
The mood has really changed now. The end users have gotten to the buyers and now everyone wants sustainable shrimp. So we’re excited about what WWF is doing. We think it will help us market our shrimp. If Mexico, which is our main market now, were to close the border, we would be in big trouble. We always have to be ready to find and serve new markets. And if the markets demand certified, sustainable shrimp, that’s what we’re going to produce. Belizean shrimp farmers want to produce the best shrimp in the world!
Information: Linda Thornton, Aqua Mar Belize, Ltd., Independence Village, Big Creek, Stann Creek District, Belize (phone 501-520-3036, fax 501-520-3026, email email@example.com).
Students at Pace University, a private university in New York City with three campuses and around 13,000 students, have completed a documentary titled “Linda Thornton: Seeking Sustainability One Shrimp at a Time!”
Pace Professor Maria Luskay (firstname.lastname@example.org) took students, alumni and “New York Times” blogger Andrew Revkin to Belize in March 2011 to get Linda’s story. Luskay is a member of the Department of Media, Communications and Visual Arts at Pace’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Revkin, author of “Dot Earth”, is the one who put Luskay and her students in touch with Thornton and helped organize the trip. The group visited three shrimp farms.
“It’s a tale of endurance and creativity,” said Luskay. “We selected this...compelling story of Linda and her travails as a woman in the sustainable shrimp industry.”
Luskay plans to submit the documentary to about six competitive film festivals including the Woodstock Film Festival, NY Film Festival and Red Wasp Film Festival.
The students have created a blog about their work on the project. You can check it out at: http://sustainableshrimp.blogspot.com.
Sources: 1. Pleasantville-BriarcliffManorPatch. This Time the Story Led to Belize: Pace Class Makes a Documentary a Year. David Laub. April 4, 2011.
Pace University News Release on the Documentary
In a new documentary, Linda Thornton: Seeking Sustainability, One Shrimp at a Time, a team of Pace University student filmmakers explores the life of a resilient, pioneering aquaculture entrepreneur as she pushes the frontiers of sustainable shrimp farming in Belize.
Linda Thornton is the quintessential innovator, but with a deep green streak—overcoming daunting personal and technical challenges to fulfill a lifelong dream of farming a staple of the global middle class diet, shrimp, while cutting environmental impacts. In the film students in the award-winning Pace University course “Producing the Documentary” tell Thornton’s story, which over three decades takes her from early experiments with urban indoor shrimp farming in Chicago to hard-won success in Belize, a country aiming to build its economy without harming its extraordinary natural assets—particularly its coastal mangrove forests and coral reefs.
Undaunted by a boating accident that in 1994 took the lives of her husband and two other men and left her partially paralyzed, Thornton rebuilt her body and her early Belizean farming business. After initial confrontations with environmental groups fighting a wave of shrimp farm development that was damaging coastal ecosystems from Asia to the Americas, Thornton, together with Tim Smith, a biologist working for the World Wildlife Fund, refined methods for controlling feed and water that dramatically cut pollution.
Their collaboration is part of a move within the shrimp aquaculture industry toward standards that could soon give shoppers the option of buying shrimp that are certified as sustainably raised. Thornton, still in pain from her injuries long ago, now works at three different shrimp farms in Belize, one of which is her own Cardelli Farms, named for her father. She has also been a leader in improving labor practices in the industry.
In the film, Smith describes Thornton as gritty and creative and a natural bridge builder between the aquaculture industry and conservationists.
“She is one of the toughest and most competent people I have met,” Smith says. “Just a person that’s barely able to walk some mornings and she gets up and … runs a thousand acres of shrimp farms and then comes home and then runs her own farm. That’s not a trivial thing. There are hulls of businesses that were not able to do that all around her, all around Belize.”
The project highlights a shift in the ever-growing $10 billion industry toward raising shrimp with minimal impact on the environment. The film takes viewers from the seafood markets and plush restaurants of Manhattan to the sprawling ponds of Belize’s shrimp farms and even into the breeding tanks where huge Pacific white shrimp mingle and mate to start the cycle of production.
For interviews with the student filmmakers, Luskay or Revkin, contact Cara Cea at the Pace University office of public information (phone 1-914-906-9680, email email@example.com).
Sources: 1. Email to Shrimp News International from Andrew Revkin. Subject: Linda Thornton Documentary. Pace University News Release. Students from Award-Winning Pace University Course “Producing The Documentary” to Screen New Film about Sustainable Shrimp Farming in Belize. May 13, 2011.