AYLMER, ONT. — In the middle of giving a tour, Sheldon Garfinkle peers into one of his company’s water tanks. Blue shrimp the size of fingers dart away from him, hiding in the far corners.
“They can hear us,” he said. “They are very sensitive creatures.”
Garfinkle’s great accomplishment is that these sensitive shrimp are alive at all, trotting around tanks stacked six levels high. For five years, the biggest problem in Canada’s fledgling, indoor shrimping business has been dead shrimp. If the water is too cold, they die. If the filtration isn’t right, they die.
For the few shrimp farmers operating in Canada, a 50-per-cent survival rate is an achievement. As a result, homegrown shrimp has been a rare delicacy, served infrequently by chefs and high-end fishmongers.
But at the Planet Shrimp facility, 45 kilometres south of London, Ont., in Aylmer, Garfinkle and his team say they have figured out how to produce shrimp at a commercial scale.
Garfinkle, the company’s chief executive, conservatively puts the plant’s capacity at 300,000 pounds of shrimp a year — enough to start looking into international exports while fulfilling a growing list of supply agreements with luxury hotels, resorts and upscale Toronto retail chains such as Pusateri’s Fine Foods and Hooked seafood markets. The shrimp also show up at dozens of restaurants across southern Ontario, and will soon be offered on 360 Restaurant’s summer menu atop the CN Tower.
Canadian farmed shrimp seems on the verge of a new phase, with Planet Shrimp and a competitor in British Columbia both claiming that they are making good on their ambitions to expand their reach far beyond a group of local chefs. “Shrimp’s the new cannabis,” one Planet Shrimp executive joked recently. But with so few success stories and a high retail price tag, the shrimp’s path to the big time and grocery stores will be difficult.
The main selling point for the Canadian product is what it is not. It’s not shipped in from thousands of kilometres away. It’s not as ecologically harmful as wild-caught shrimp, which often involves dragging nets that inadvertently catch endangered species such as turtles, sharks and dolphins.
It’s also not the kind of cheap farmed shrimp from Asia, much of which is grown in outdoor pools created by destroying mangroves and treated with antibiotics to keep the shrimp alive, according to Ocean Wise marine biologist Alasdair Lindop.
But producing commercial quantities indoors means keeping millions and millions of shrimp. A lot can go wrong, even though the concept of such farming seems simple enough.
They are very sensitive creatures
“I could do it in my backyard,” said Warren Douglas, project manager at Berezan Shrimp Co. in Langley, B.C., the only other fully operational shrimp farm in Canada. “You know, build a little shed and I could be growing shrimp probably within a few months.”
In a commercial context, however, “you’ve got basically a life support system keeping millions of animals alive,” he said.
Both Berezan and Planet Shrimp monitor their facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week, watching for issues in the tanks that could threaten the stock — for example, a burst pipe that lowers water levels.
“In the middle of the night, if the alarm goes off, in some cases you’ve got less than 20 minutes to rectify it,” Douglas said, “otherwise, you start losing shrimp.”
The short history of shrimping in Canada starts with Paul Cocchio and his son Brad. They were hog farmers in Cambellford, Ont., two hours northeast of Toronto, who turned their hog barn into a shrimp barn five years ago.
The shrimp barn is empty now. Cocchio was fed up. He was paying to heat the water to nearly 30 C through the winter and buy supplies from the U.S. on a weak Canadian dollar, only to pull up tattered shrimp corpses whenever he skimmed the bottom of his tanks.
“We haven’t figured out what’s gone wrong,” he said.
Cocchio’s shrimp production peaked at 200 pounds a week sometime around 2017. The wineries in nearby Prince Edward County bought most of it. Then consultants and aquaculture experts started making suggestions, he said, about improving his water filtration and increasing his shrimp survival rate beyond 50 per cent.
“Everything we tried made it worse,” he said. “I don’t know — couldn’t figure out why. We’d had enough of it by then.”
Cocchio said now, eight months after closing, he suspects murder. “We think it’s fighting at that point,” he said of the dead shrimp. The corpses he skimmed from the bottom of the tank were often “torn apart.”
But he has no way of knowing. The water is his tanks was too murky to see what was going on, since Cocchio’s system used algae as part of the filtration process.
“You look at water and you say, ‘Oh, there’s water,’” he said. “But when you start really looking at water, it’s amazing what science is behind it.”
In the filtration room at Planet Shrimp in Aylmer, 10 million gallons of water pass through per day. The waste is dried and sold in “cakes” as fertilizer. The heated water makes the room humid, almost feverish. It smells vaguely like a lake on a hot day — or maybe an outhouse beside a lake on a hot day.
“The smell starts to get to you,” Garfinkle said. But the water rushing out of the filtration room seems to thrill him. “That’s clear water,” he said. Asked if he would drink it, he said he would and then paused. “I wouldn’t go out of my way.”
The water and the shrimp in it are intensely monitored by sensors throughout the farm that collect a million data points per day. The shrimp grow in a row of shallow tanks, one row stacked on top of another, six rows high.
Each row is as long as a football field, beginning with the nursery and ending in the Phase 5 tank. As the shrimp grow, they are transferred to progressively larger tanks, until Phase 5, when they are “harvested.”
In a lab beside the network of tanks, Planet Shrimp analysts monitor the shrimp’s progress in real time, watching, for example, how one tank’s weight matches up with the average, or how water data — salinity, temperature, pH — might explain any abnormalities in the shrimp stock.
After 137 days, the shrimp are siphoned out of the tank, through a turnstile, into a tube that shoots them to slaughter like mail through a mailroom. The water in the tube is colder than in the tanks, which makes the shrimp docile in their final seconds.
Garfinkle looks up at the tubes that line the wall of the “chill kill” room. They’re like water slides. The shrimp slide out the tube onto a conveyor belt with little sprinklers over top — the “car wash,” as he calls it — that spray the shrimp with ice water cold enough to instantly kill them. About 74 per cent of them make it to this stage, which is above the level that Addison Lawrence, an 83-year-old professor at Texas A&M University and shrimp farming pioneer, said is needed for a commercially viable shrimp farm.
“What they’re doing, it is the future,” Lawrence said.
From there, an X-ray machine grades them in half a second. If a shrimp is jumbo, it ends up in the jumbo chute. The same process separates the medium shrimp and smaller shrimp. But the measly ones, or ones with puncture wounds or other defects, slide alone to the end of the conveyor belt, which drops them one storey into a reject bin.
A supervisor watches the shrimp as they enter the X-ray machine. He grabs one that is larger than the others, at least 40 grams, which he brings over to show Garfinkle.
“That’s what we call a colossal,” Garfinkle said, adding that when Planet Shrimp starts breeding shrimp, they will use such big ones as brood stock.
Planet Shrimp currently gets its shrimp babies, or “post-larvae,” from a hatchery in Texas. The babies are packed in a bag filled with ocean water, flown to Toronto and trucked to Aylmer where they’re inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. They’re given time to acclimatize to Planet’s Shrimp’s water conditions, a third of the salinity levels of ocean water, before being released into the nursery tank.
Last week, a storm in Houston cancelled the shrimp babies’ flight, forcing Planet Shrimp to wait three days for a new batch to be delivered, since keeping the others in limbo that long would have put too much “stress on the animals,” Garfinkle said. “That’s the reason to have a hatchery.”
Planet Shrimp has installed hatchery tanks at its facility to produce post-larvae, thereby simplifying the process. The tanks are empty now, though Garfinkle said they’ll be operational soon, through a “strategic alliance” with his post-larvae supplier in Texas.
But starting a hatchery has been complicated for Kerry LeBreton, president of Good4Ushrimp Inc. in Sudbury, Ont. Until recently, Good4U was the only other operational shrimp farm in Ontario. But its plans for a hatchery forced it to halt production.
“This is where the politics comes in,” LeBreton said.
The U.S. producers who sell post-larvae require their clients to agree that the babies won’t be used as brood stock to start a competing hatchery, he said.
“I refuse to buy from those suppliers,” he said. “So I have no shrimp in the farm.”
Until his hatchery is able to produce enough post-larvae to supply his 18,000-square-foot farm, his tanks are stuck at five-per-cent capacity. He said he expects to have the hatchery operational in the next few weeks.
Nobody here has ever witnessed the actual mating. Maybe they’re shy
Kerry LeBreton, president of Good4Ushrimp
To start the hatchery, LeBreton ordered brood stock from Hawaii at roughly US$25 apiece. Females can produce up to 400,000 post larvae once a month.
Some hatcheries will cut off one of the female’s eyes, manipulating its hormones to cause it to reproduce more often — a process called eyestalk ablation. LeBreton said he refuses to do that.
“Curious enough, the females will actually choose their mates,” he said, adding that he has seen females refuse males.
“Nobody here has ever witnessed the actual mating,” LeBreton said. “Maybe they’re shy. I don’t know. I have to assume it’s pretty damn quick, because we’re obviously watching.”
The tour back at Planet Shrimp ends at a makeshift office. It is drab room outside the biosecure shrimp farm area, dominated by the smell of the anti-bacterial footbath that all visitors must slosh their feet in. Marvyn Budd, the president and founder of the company, walks in.
“I decorated myself,” he said of the office, a jumble of plastic folding tables, power chords and internet cables. Garfinkle adds, “A lot of our investors appreciate the fact that when they walk in they don’t see a glamorous setup.”
Instead of paying for hotels, the company rents a house in town for executives to stay when they visit the facility from Toronto. Most of the time it’s just Garfinkle and Budd. They are only concerned about the farm, making sure the shrimp babies they put into the system “come out the other side,” Budd said. “It took us longer than we anticipated, but we’ve figured it out.”
There’s more to figure out, though: such as how to convince Canadians en masse to spend more for a pound of shrimp. Farmed varieties from overseas can cost less than $10 while Planet Shrimp’s products retail between $30 and $42 per pound, a premium price for a premium product, Budd said.
There’s no shortage of demand — North Americans consume more than one billion pounds of shrimp a year — so there very well might be room for a premium product. Canadians spent $379 million on shrimp in the past 12 months, according to Nielsen data.
Tyler Sheddon, culinary director at Chase Hospitality Group, oversees a number of popular downtown Toronto restaurants, has been testing dishes using Planet Shrimp’s product and plans to use it for a new dish on the menu at Chase. He’s had supply issues with other local indoor aquaculture projects but he’s willing to take a bit of a risk.
He’s pushing his distributor to get him fresh shrimp from the Planet Shrimp farm, which freezes almost all its product on site.
“The texture is a bit firm,” Sheddon said. “The sweetness for me isn’t something that’s quite there.”
But the frozen product is good all the same — not like pulling spot prawns out of the trap on the B.C coast, he said, but good.
Planet Shrimp’s plan is to keep scaling the business, expanding into more of its million-square-foot warehouse. The ambition is to more than double capacity, and as the company grows, it will be able to get the price of its shrimp down.
At the end of the tour, a sales coordinator brings in a bowl of shrimp. She cooked them in a frying pan with a bit of oil in the office kitchen. Budd gives a demonstration, ripping off the shrimp’s head and peeling the rest all at once.
For his guests, it’s not so easy. Budd and Garfinkle watch, waiting for them to finish peeling the shrimp. There’s a pause as they chew. Budd, standing beside them, starts asking questions and then suggests the shrimp taste sweet and not fishy. “This is not what you’re used to.”