Sustainable Shrimp Farm Opens Near Las Vegas

A Las Vegas company has set out to transform the seafood industry with its new sustainable shrimp farm. Though the farm’s unlikely location — in the middle of the Mojave Desert, about 30 miles from the bustling Las Vegas Strip — is far from water, the enclosed facility’s salt water pools simulate an ocean environment for the young Mexican white shrimp. Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp began operating its facility in April, and plans to have its first harvest on the plates of Las Vegas diners by the end of August.

Blue Oasis imports 5-day-old shrimp from Florida and raises them from larvae to mature shrimp, a growth process that spans about 120 days. After that period, the shrimp are packed on ice — but never frozen — and shipped to nearby casinos and high-end restaurants like the Border Grill at the Mandalay Bay Resort, which plans to incorporate the shrimp into its dishes. Like many other Las Vegas restaurants, the Border Grill says it is committed to buying only sustainable seafood, and celebrates the availability of fresh and local shrimp. The expedited shipping process cuts carbon emissions from traditional shipping methods and distances – usually, shrimp has to be transported from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico before it reaches Las Vegas.

The innovative company began as an effort to measure the water quality of the Salton Sea, a landlocked body of salt water that lies in the southeastern portion of California, about 120 miles east of San Diego. The lake has a higher salinity level than the ocean due in part to low rainfall levels in the area, making it difficult to support marine life. While testing the lake’s salinity and brainstorming ways to improve its water quality, the idea was proposed to bring shrimp into the testing pools to determine if the water was adequate enough to support marine life. As the shrimp continued to thrive, Blue Oasis realized that shrimp could be sustainably raised in an enclosed desert building. 

Rectangular saltwater pools house the shrimp, which are grown using organic methods, fed a high-protein diet of algae and fishmeal, and raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, chemicals or pesticides. Though an organic seafood certification does not currently exist, Blue Oasis hopes to work with the USDA to create standards for organically grown seafood and become a model for other companies. The baby shrimp are purebred in Florida, and each shrimp’s lineage is carefully tracked for at least six generations, each of which is certified pathogen-free, eliminating the need for antibiotics to keep diseases at bay. 

The self-contained facility creates no wastewater, has zero impact on the environment, and uses less water than an average Las Vegas home. Water is recycled through a closed loop system that filters the water for reuse in cleaning. Blue Oasis uses a bio-filtration system to control its water quality and was built using as much recycled and reused materials as possible. The company cuts down on paper usage by accessing documents online. 

An estimate of 40 percent of the world’s edible shrimp comes from shrimp farms. The goal of sustainable seafood farming is to produce large quantities of a product without disturbing or damaging the environment or ecosystem. Global shrimp fishing yields one of the largest percentages of bycatch – that is, undesirable marine life such as fish, other crustaceans and turtles — in the seafood industry. The shrimp industry discards one-third of its total catch, while producing about 2 percent of the world’s seafood. Ratios of bycatch to shrimp catch are about 4:1, a figure that is highest in fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, where most American shrimp is sourced from.

The company’s CEO, Scott McManus, says that Las Vegas is the nation’s biggest shrimp consumer per capita. The farm expects to grow up to half a million pounds of shrimp per year, a quantity devoured by Las Vegas restaurant patrons in an average week. The company already plans to expand to distribute its shrimp to Reno, Nev. and St. Louis, Mo. as well as local meat shops. Blue Oasis hopes that the farm will create more jobs for the greater Las Vegas area; the company employs 20 people and expects that number to double or triple once the second round of production begins. 

Photo credit: Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp

House Votes Against “Frankenfish”

Who doesn’t love salmon?  With so many great health benefits, it is hard to imagine how anyone could not like it.  It is rich in amino acids, iron, protein, calcium, a plethora of vitamins, and soon it may even be genetically modified!

But not yet.  And in the minds of many, hopefully not ever.

The United States House of Representatives recently amended a bill in order to block the Food and Drug Administration from funding the approval of genetically engineered salmon.  Blocking all funding to approving genetically modified salmon will effectively prevent it from entering the market as the Food and Drug Administration will not be able to conduct final studies on the effects the fish could have on people and the environment.  Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) proposed the amendment.  The rest of the bill, an appropriations bill entitled “The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,” was passed.

The genetically altered salmon is manufactured by AquaBounty and has been dubbed AquAdvantage, though many refer to it as “Frankenfish” because it is composed from the genes of three distinct breeds.  AquaBounty started with an Atlantic salmon and spliced its genes with genes for the growth hormone from a much larger breed of salmon, the Chinook.  Then, that gene sequence was put under the control of a DNA from a third fish, the Ocean Pout.  The end result is a new type of salmon (though the Food and Drug Administration insists that for all intents and purposes the new fish is simply an Atlantic Salmon which has been administered a “veterinary drug”) which grows to be much larger than naturally occurring Atlantic salmon.  They also reach their full size twice as fast because their growth hormones are perpetually “turned on.”

There is a multitude of reasons for the concern surrounding genetically modified salmon.  The general populace of both the United States and Europe is clearly against the idea:  The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both conducted polls which showed that only 36% of American consumers would be willing to eat genetically modified salmon.  Figures in the European Union were essentially 0% and ultimately no genetically modified foods are permitted to be sold in the European Union.

Don Young, the Republican representative from Alaska who helped create the amendment, states that it will harm fisheries in Alaska.  Ostensibly, he is concerned that if approved, AquaBounty’s salmon will hurt business purely because consumers will purchase it instead of Alaskan caught salmon.  After all, the salmon industry brings in $100 billion annually worldwide and it is one of Alaska’s key livelihoods.  However, Young insists that changes in consumer purchasing patterns is not the issue, especially given the public’s apparent attitude towards genetically modified salmon.  He is worried about the potential for these farm salmon to escape an invade native populations.  Every year tons of salmon do escape from farms, and they can potentially wipe out the genetic diversity of native populations and ultimately cause them to disappear completely.

The health effects (or lack thereof) are also unclear, which makes people especially weary of the “Frankenfish.”  Currently the FDA’s position is that because the vast majority of the AquAdvantage fish comes from the Atlantic salmon it “meets the standard of identity for Atlantic salmon” and that there are “no material differences… and there is a reasonable certainty that no harm” will come from eating it.  However, many activists and scientists claim that the FDA has based its conclusions on flimsy scientific research performed only by AquaBounty.  In fact, as recently as September of 2010 an eleven member advisory panel to the FDA could not decide whether or not consumption of the AquAdvantage was safe for humans.

Beyond potential negative effects on economic and human health, many claim that the process used to “grow” the salmon is environmentally sustainable.  AquaBounty plans to clone the fish in Canada, then transport them to Panama to grow, and then fly them back to the United States for consumption.  All that movement seems pointless when according to many accounts, the fisheries in Alaska are in good shape and almost all are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Like any complicated conflict there are experts who support both sides.  Many claim that the fish are indeed healthy for human consumption and that because our population and therefore our demand continues to increase, we must rely on something like the AquAdvantage fish to prevent over fishing in the future.

For now the FDA, along with every body else, will have to wait and see if the Senate also votes to pass the bill with this key amendment.

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