Aquaman Growing 5,000 Sustainable Shrimp in Newburgh

By Andrea B. Swenson / Photography By Keith Ferris | January 01, 2017
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Shrimp do not grow in gardens. Nor do they grow in urban basements. Nor has much of Jean Claude Frajmund’s life direction been conventionally linear. Until now.

Born in Brazil to French and Belgian parents, Frajmund, founder of ECO Shrimp Garden in Newburgh, zigzagged through locations like Rome, Paris and New York, doing stints in the film, digital television, culinary and computer industries. Only his unwavering dream, spawned at the age of 16 on the beaches of Brazil, has remained constant. During a three-month trek, he would wade, early in the morning, into chest-high water with a partner to net more than 40 pounds of local shrimp. The fresh, sweet taste of the ocean shrimp was a sensation he would never forget, and he became determined to share such an experience with everyone, land locked or not. This was the path that brought Frajmund’s life circling round to an empty mattress factory in Newburgh—to grow shrimp in his inland, industrial garden.

Jumbo Shrimp Problem

The United States is a shrimp glutton. Americans eat, on average, four pounds of shrimp per year—slightly less than the total amount of salmon and tuna consumption combined. Of all the shrimp eaten in the U.S., 94 percent are imported. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. importation of shrimp in 2015 was 585,826 metric tons, or nearly 1.3 billion pounds. The USDA reported an all-time-high imported shrimp haul in 2014, valued at over $6 billion. The demand created from the hoopla of low-priced “endless shrimp”–type promotions and readily available frozen shrimp at supermarket and chain stores has unwittingly caused a tidal wave of endless suffering and destruction for Southeast Asian exporting countries. The ravages are two fold—the mangrove forests and the people.

Mangrove forests are one of the earth’s greatest filters. Guardians of the shoreline, mangroves once covered three-quarters of the world’s tropical coastlines, with the greatest variety inhabiting Southeast Asia. Highly resilient, mangroves thrive in brackish water—up to 100 times saltier than any other plant can withstand. A powerful ecosystem, they hem the shoreline allaying erosion and entrapping many of mankind’s toxins from washing outward into the ocean. Defending seaward, mangroves buffer the horrific effects of tsunamis hurtling toward landfall. Mangroves are renewable food sources; they are, according to the Mangrove Action Project, “fish factories for the 210 million people who live near them and depend on them for food.” Scientists have dubbed the mangroves “natural carbon scrubbers,” and research shows mangroves “sequester more carbon than any of their terrestrial counterparts.” What has put asunder these stalwart conservators? Shrimp farms.

The early 1980s saw the beginning of a new industry—highly profitable shrimp farms; outdoor ponds were built where majestic mangrove forests once stood. By 1996, Thailand alone had lost approximately 56 percent of its mangrove forests to such development. Like many poorly thought-out plans executed from greed and lack of foresight, the outdoor shrimp ponds quickly were revealed as unsustainable. Farmed shrimp give off ammonia; unless the water is purified and oxygenated, they die. Bacteria also form in the ponds, promoting disease; accelerated amounts of antibiotics have to be introduced into the ecoculture. Augmented global demand for shrimp must be met in such a scenario; growth hormones, fertilizers, disinfectants and pesticides become inevitable. Compounding the issue is the fact that these ponds only are sustainable from two to five years. More mangrove forests are eradicated; shrimp are produced that are overdosed, pumped up, barely viable and have become the standard for the world’s dinner plate—a practice Frajmund calls “somewhat Faustian.”

Most agonizing are the human victims, the Southeast Asian people. Across the board, the general population suffers from the shrimp aquaculture because reduced mangroves also mean a reduced source of food, medicine and fuel. There is also a tragic hidden cost; purported to help wild resources recover from overfishing, the “blue revolution,” as it is sometimes called, of outdoor pond shrimp farming has ushered in widespread abuse such as rampant slavery, child labor, human trafficking and death. Migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Burma are bamboozled or shanghaied into lifelong slavery on fishing boats, which drag the sea bottom at illegal depths, producing bycatch of endangered species. The bycatch is not released but ground up as food for the shrimp ponds.

On shore, women and underage children are employed in pre-processing factories or peeling sheds. Here they can be starved, physically abused, overworked and have passports confiscated and pay withheld. In 2011, the Thai Frozen Food Association reported about 200 legally registered peeling sheds. Speculative reports assert there could be between 400 and 2,000 unregistered sheds. The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report gave Thailand a Tier 3 rating—the worst designation—in 2014 and 2015.

While unabashed destruction of rainforests and melting polar caps has dominated the news, sadly, awareness by the crustacean-consuming public about wrongdoings and corruption in the Southeast Asian aquaculture is extremely low.

shrimp growing
Eco-mastermind Jean Claude Frajmund in his humid lab teeming with thousands of shrimp

Small Hope

It’s no wonder why Frajmund is adamant about his shrimp garden. To him, the very term “garden” connotes good food, while the aquatic variety of the term “farm” connotes bad food. He has spent the last two years actuating a 35-year-old vision. Now updated, he has expanded that goal to encompass current circumstances. Frajmund’s beliefs, integrity and determination convince him that he can help pioneer a three-pronged approach to protect humanity and the environment, provide jobs and produce an artisanal product.

Upon entering the doors of the ECO Shrimp Garden, the temperature becomes balmy and pleasantly humid. There is a constant sound of pumps humming and water eddying. Defying expectations, there is no discernable trace of fish odor from the 3,500 to 5,000 Pacific White Shrimp swimming in the blue-and-white-checked tanks. The diminutive crustaceans in their spa-like habitat unknowingly carry the weight of Frajmund’s remarkable dream.

The first of its kind in the tri-state area, the ECO Shrimp Garden indoor tanks are one of a small but steadily expanding number in the country. The Pacific white shrimp growing here are chosen for their sweet taste, ability to adapt to indoor tanks and potential to reach a desired market size. The 11-day-old babies, so translucent they look like ghosts, develop to harvest size in four to six months. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program gives this shrimp its “Best Choice” ranking. The 24 tanks and four nurseries they thrive in are fitted with an Indoor Zero Water Exchange Systems (IZHEA), a totally closed system. The tap water that fills the tanks is recyclable, chemical free, hormone free and pollutant free. Shrimp in these tanks will never know the hazards of mercury, oil and other contaminants that swirl in the ocean. The saline content in the tanks, perfectly balanced at ocean standards, is achieved with U.S.-produced ocean salt. Unless a tank is being filled, the water usage is no more than the average household. But the essential key to success is a recent development in aquaculture technology known as “biofloc.” Before its introduction, all of Frajmund’s extensive research was dead-ended. Biofloc is loosely defined as a suspended solid made up of various heterotrophic bacteria that convert metabolic waste into an additional food source, like a snack, in the form of zooplankton, for the shrimp with biological filtration qualities. It is a living filter that sustains a closed-loop system where waste is produced and consumed and yields a happy product to harvest: shrimp.

Seven or more high-pressure, regenerative blowers in each tank constantly push a fresh air supply to circulate oxygen into the murky brown water. The brown coloration is the biofloc. Keeping it in motion prevents the bacteria from sinking and becoming nonfunctional. Healthy and dynamic, the bacteria convert waste ammonia from the shrimp to nitrites then to nitrates and continuing stages, as mentioned above, until the entire process results in a re-digestible supplement (biofloc) and purified water.

For the time being, Frajmund harvests his shrimp on Fridays and Saturdays to sell them at Union Square Green Market in New York City, as well as directly from the facility. His production manager, John Wallash, formerly a trout farmer, and two additional workers net the adult shrimp and pack them on ice for traveling. The shrimp are delivered within hours, whole and on ice, never frozen, never processed. His two additional workers are interns from a New York State special education program. After three months of trial apprenticing, the interns can be hired full-time and ECO Shrimp Garden is reimbursed by the state. One of their first interns, Rayi, has just been brought on board as a permanent staffer.

Two years in, the nascent ECO Shrimp Garden, started in 2014, is still an expensive endeavor. An admirer of Elon Musk’s business strategy of open-sourcing Tesla Motors’ technology, Frajmund would like to replicate this principle for the inland shrimp industry to bring down costs. In this spirit of information sharing, he recently traveled to Philadelphia to consult on a new enterprise. Frajmund would like to see shrimp gardens—small scale or large—proliferate across the country. Then, an American shrimp industry could bring all those import dollars home, create jobs, conserve water, save lives and reduce carbon output all while growing an artisanal food source that is fresh and can be harvested year round. Yes, those tiny, tasty white Pacific crustaceans carry a big burden, but if Frajmund has his way, Americans can have their shrimp and eat it, too. His dream may appear as big as the ocean, but it is quite possibly as doable as a backyard garden.

99 S. William Street, Newburgh
[Open Wednesday and Friday from 10am–4pm.
Prices range from $30.90–$32.90/lb.]

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