Big mission … small footprint
According to Sun Shrimp President Robin Pearl, shrimp is the number one seafood consumed in the country, and he said there is no reason for shrimp to be a U.S. import rather than an export. He reports the more than 8-acre farm he’s running out on Pine Island is responsible for up to 40 percent of the shrimp consumption in Asia alone.
Sun Shrimp broke ground in 2013, Pearl said, with Pine Island specifically chosen. No stranger to shrimp farming, Pearl had already pioneered the growing of low salinity marine saltwater shrimp out in LaBelle. There were issues, he said, with attaining water of good quality, as well as other constraints.
“We wanted to take the next step,” said Pearl. “Pine Island gave us a good source of saltwater and Florida is a great place to grow shrimp because it’s nice and warm.”
Pearl went on to explain that Florida has a large amount of ocean front property, due to its location, but no one would put a shrimp farm on ocean front property. Pine Island, he said, is unique in that the land is agricultural, and also surrounded by saltwater and mangroves, creating a marine environment that’s also agrarian. When Sun Shrimp began, Pearl said their sights were set on growing food shrimp for heavy hitters of retail, such as Costco, Kroger and Publix.
“Things were going pretty well,” said Pearl, “and then we started seeing a lower survival rate of our shrimp.”
Although Pearl and his team were very adept at the growing of shrimp, it took a couple of years to figure out why the shrimp survival rate was dropping. After a battery of tests on water quality, possible disease and system structure, they found the issue had been genetic. One of the main suppliers of the world’s shrimp is in the Florida Keys, Pearl said. Since this company was also his supplier, the problem was passed along. He likens it to buying a car from a well-known manufacturer who’s having engine trouble. Since the problem was that basic, there was nothing to do but to begin his own genetics company, so that is what he did.
“We started in 2016,” said Pearl, “and since then we have become one of the largest shrimp genetics companies in the world.”
According to Pearl, shrimp farms all over India, Vietnam and China stock babies whose ancestors were created by his team on Pine Island. In addition to creating food shrimp, American Mariculture is now a major contributor to growing shrimp genetics the world over.
Pearl said it’s important to note his work is in genetic selection with the intention of growing the perfect shrimp to farm, not in genetic modification of any kind. Shrimp that are selected according to health, and vitality, are then chosen to breed the best quality food product possible. Because of the vast success of his company, American Mariculture is now the top supplier of baby shrimp to all the farms in North America, Pearl said, holding an approximate 95 to 98 percent market share.
“There’s a lot coming out of little Pine Island,” said Pearl. “The way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if this little farm ended up being responsible for 50 percent of the world’s shrimp in a couple of years.”
Pearl said now that they are doing so well globally, the team is doubling its effort to grow more food shrimp for the U.S. Plans for expansion are in the works, he said, since much of the original capacities are now being used for genetic programming, leaving limited shrimp available for retail partners. He said the number one complaint he encounters is that there isn’t enough shrimp. He credits this to the popularity of the final product.
“We don’t use chemicals, we don’t use any preservatives, antibiotics or medicines,” said Pearl. “It’s just pure shrimp, and we’re using an all-natural process to grow it. There is a taste and a flavor that is absolutely incredible.”
Making sure the shrimp he grows is as fresh as possible for consumption is one of the main priorities of Sun Shrimp. According to Pearl, getting truly fresh shrimp is harder than most people suspect. Even if one ventures to the docks when the boats come in, Pearl explained that often the shrimp has been frozen for weeks on the boats while they’re still out. Supermarkets frequently sell shrimp that’s been previously frozen as well, he said, sometimes going through being re-frozen a number of times, which costs a great deal of the quality and flavor of the product well before consumption.
The U.S. imports 90 percent of its seafood, Pearl said, adding that at one time, seafood was the second largest trade deficit item in natural resources, second only to oil.
“It may very well be that now seafood is the number one trade deficit item in this country for natural resources,” said Pearl.
Pearl admits that he finds no need for this, saying America can produce much of its own seafood and that he is hoping Sun Shrimp is setting an example of doing just that. His opinion is that there is no need to rely upon another country to supply the U.S. with something as basic as seafood.
“We have so much opportunity here,” said Pearl, adding that they are by far the largest integrated shrimp farming company in the country.
He explained that Sun Shrimp has kept a low profile out in Pine Island with the intention of proving the product first. He has every hope that others will follow in the footsteps of his team, holding the belief that if they can accomplish something of this magnitude, so can someone else. The idea of making a video on what they do at Sun Shrimp is an idea Pearl is considering, in an effort to let people know that although, for the safety of the shrimp, the public does not have access to the facility, it’s fine that the locals know what the work entails. His concerns, he said, are not that someone might steal a few pounds of shrimp, but that someone might bring in contaminants, which would harm the bio-secure area. In fact, the Sun Shrimp facility has been used by other companies to train in becoming bio-secure, as a specific pathogen free facility, they limit building access purposefully and methodically, in order to remain free of disease and pathogens.
“The reason people need chemicals, antibiotics and medicines is because they have disease,” said Pearl. “If you keep the disease out, you don’t have to use any of those things.”
When someone comes in to work at Sun Shrimp, they immediately remove their personal footwear, in trade for special work boots or shoes, worn only inside the gated facility. After putting on their work boots, each member of the team walks across an apparatus designed to clean the outside of their special shoes with water and scrub brushes, as Pearl explains that many pathogens live on the soles of shoes. With little to no pollutants left behind, Pearl explained his goal is to make the most use of the land they’re on leaving as small a footprint as possible.
“We keep our water outside,” said Pearl. “We don’t pollute, we don’t discharge, and we’re getting as much from the community as we’re giving.”
Pearl reports that he currently employs approximately 80 people. He is determined not to let the economy affect his employment, saying that they have taken advantage of the lull caused by the current pandemic to tackle projects they would not have otherwise had time to take on. Although Sun Shrimp has been greatly affected by the temporary loss of retail sales, by companies such as Disney, whom Pearl said is one of their largest customers, using Sun Shrimp in many of their restaurants and hotels, they remain focused on the future and their product.
“We haven’t laid off one person,” said Pearl. “We’ve actually hired some people.”
Due to social media, Pearl said people have been talking about the food truck out front where they can buy daily specials made fresh in addition to an entire menu from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Of course, fresh Sun Shrimp is also available by the pound from the same truck. For years, he said people requested purchasing shrimp directly, but they were not set up to do retail sales like they are now.
“People may go to Publix and see that there’s no meat in the counter,” said Pearl, “that can be a little scary. We do have shrimp we’ve been harvesting. People need food now so we want to let them know it’s available.”
Sun Shrimp is at 9703 Stringfellow Road in St. James City.