STOUGHTON — A shrimp grows in Stoughton. Actually, it’s more like 1,500 pounds of them.
Miles from the ocean, in a non- descript industrial park, Pacific white shrimp are frolicking in 82-degree purified Atlantic seawater and getting plump on special feed. It’s warm in the room that houses five big open tanks. That’s the way these babies like it, and James Tran and Peter Howard, the masterminds behind Sky 8 Shrimp Farm, are determined to give them what they like. In turn, Tran and Howard hope to reap tremendous rewards when the shrimp are harvested and sold; they’re expecting their first crop this month and already have plans to expand.
Sky 8 is the first of its kind in New England. The owners expect to capitalize on the appetite for both shrimp and local foods. They say that the shrimp are being raised using sustainable, environmentally sound methods that don’t destroy any natural resources or circulate dirty water back into the ocean, without hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, or preservatives. They will also be sold fresh, never frozen.
The number 8 in the name comes from the fact that this is the 8th such shrimp farm in the United States. “Sky’’ is from the company Skyworks Solutions, where James Tran’s day job is designing semiconductors. And also, says Tran, because “you know, sky’s the limit.’’
Americans certainly seem to have a bottomless appetite for the little pink crustaceans. Matt Thompson, a senior aquaculture specialist at the New England Aquarium, cites the figures: “Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in America, with 4.2 pounds per capita consumed in 2011; 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp are consumed yearly’’ in the United States. We clearly love our shrimp, but where it comes from can be a bit problematic.
Years ago, shrimp was a pricey delicacy. Today it still isn’t cheap, but it’s affordable enough that certain restaurants sometimes offer it in endless quantities for around $15. A vast increase in imported shrimp over the past several years has brought down the price. Thompson says around 77 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from overseas, and of that, about 85 percent is farmed.
Foreign shrimp farms, found in Thailand, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, and India, have long been under fire for environmentally unsound practices. The issues range from destruction of mangrove forests to overuse of antibiotics and chemicals to pollution risks. Thompson and his colleague Heather Tausig, the aquarium’s associate vice president of conservation, both contend that overseas shrimp farms have improved in recent years. “If you went back 10 years ago you’d see more misuse of chemicals and antibiotics, but increasingly, government and industry are taking control of the issues,’’ says Thompson. Still, Tausig acknowledges, the industry has grown so rapidly that mistakes along the way were inevitable.
Both Thompson and Tausig applaud Sky 8’s efforts, though they point out that domestic shrimp farming is a minuscule sliver of the market and can’t be expected to make a significant dent in the demand.
Sky 8’s timing may be fortunate. Domestic wild-caught shrimp has long offered an alternative to imported farmed shrimp, but in many places, wild stocks are dwindling. In Maine, where tiny wild shrimp are harvested during the winter, the current season, underway since Jan. 23, has been severely curtailed because of concerns about low stocks. This year’s quota has been cut by about 75 percent from last year’s. And while the quota hasn’t yet been met, shrimp stocks are so low that few boats are finding it worth their while to go out now, says Maine fisherman Glen Libby, manager of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a Maine Community Supported Fisheries program. Sky 8 is now in a position to step in with its farm-raised version, which, in contrast to Maine’s tiny 80-per-pound peeled meat shrimp, will weigh in at a hefty 16-20 count per pound.
Despite the concerns about Maine shrimp stocks, Libby says, he sees little threat from the Massachusetts venture. “It’s a different product,’’ says the fisherman. “If they were raising tons of Maine shrimp, that might have an impact. But there are always people who want the wild caught.’’
Among them is Jasper White, chef and owner of the Summer Shack restaurants. “I have yet to come across a farm-raised shrimp that compares with wild,’’ says White, who doesn’t serve farmed shrimp in his restaurants. He emphasizes, though, that he would be willing to give the Sky 8 shrimp “the benefit of the doubt’’ and will taste them when they come on the market.
Back in Stoughton, the still-shrimpy shrimp seemed healthy and lively. Tran’s parents were shrimp fishermen in Vietnam, and Howard is a longtime seafood-industry vet. Even so, the two had a tough time jumping through all the necessary regulatory hoops to get Sky 8 off the ground.
“It was hard to make the marine fisheries people understand,’’ says Tran. “It was unfamiliar, unknown.’’
Now that it’s a reality, things are a bit different. “Now,’’ he says, “they’re excited.’’