The scene looks like some sort of makeshift aquatics club meets above ground swimming pool outlet. The room is warm and loud, thanks to the incessant hum of aerators pumping air into the eight above ground pools, and the fluorescent light only adds to the warehouse feel. No, this is not where you’d expect to find fresh, South Carolina grown shrimp, but if Valeska Minkowski has her way, this might be the first place those in the Upstate come to look.
In June, Minkowski, who is a marine biologist, started Urban Seas Aquaculture, a full-scale, environmentally friendly shrimp farm.
It is one of more than 30 aquaculture seafood farms in the US that use sustainable methods to grow certain varieties of seafood. So far, the aquaculture technology Minkowski uses has only proved successful for tilapia and shrimp.
For Minkowski, her business of raising a sustainable seafood also becomes a solution to what she sees as a very pressing problem.
“Other species of seafood, you kind of know about what not to eat because they’re overfished, but with shrimp, it’s like well, it’s everywhere,” Minkowski says. “They catch it in the millions, so it’s not the shrimp that are bad, or are overfished, it’s the way they’re being fished.”
Those ways include using large nets that entangle other animals as well as the shrimp, and also coastal farms, which have been shown to disrupt the coastal and ocean ecosystem due to chemical use and the spread of bacteria.
“So it’s like I need to save the whole ocean, not just the shrimp,” Minkowski says.
The newer breed of farms like Minkowskis could provide an answer to the world’s dwindling seafood stores. In 2009, Americans consumed 4.833 billion pounds of seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That breaks down to about 15.8 pounds per person. Of that amount, shrimp was the most consumed seafood, and that taste for seafood shows no signs of abating.
To meet growing demand, the U.S. now imports about 90 percent of its seafood, says Al Stokes, manager of the Waddell Mariculture Center in Bluffton, a facility governed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
“The reason we don’t have shrimp all year long off our coast is biology,” Stokes says. “There is seasonal reproduction. So there’s an opportunity in farming shrimp in these closed recirculating systems. If you have a system like that, you can actually harvest shrimp for marketing year round.”
And having access to a fresh, local year-round supply of shrimp could be a real boon to the Greenville food scene, particularly as more chefs and restaurateurs are focusing their efforts on local and responsible sourcing.
“If we can just get people to buy it, and it's good, which I hope it is, it should have a huge impact,” says Greg McPhee, a fierce proponent of local sourcing who is set to open his restaurant, The Anchorage, in the Village of West Greenville later this month. “Whatever we can do to continue to add diversity of ingredients in the local market is definitely going to help us grow as a food city, or just as a city in general.”
One shrimp, two shrimp
Urban Seas Aquaculture’s office is not much to look at. Minkowski moved in a couple months ago, and hasn’t decorated. The only real indication that a business exists is a large sign on the wall.
But step into the back room and it’s a different story. The system Minkowski settled on is a Biofloc recirculating one. This means that the operation is self-contained and recirculates the water in each tank, creating mini ecosystems. Each is also hooked to the aeration system, which continuously pumps air, simulates waves and keeps oxygen levels up.
On a day in early December, the shrimp in Minkowski’s four starter tanks are barely visible. At this stage, the shrimp are three weeks old, and have a few months to go before they reach maturity and are ready for sale. Come late February, if all goes well, Minkowski says, she should have her first batch of fresh, high quality, local shrimp ready for purchase.
“The Upstate is a great foodie place, so close to Asheville, that I think people will be receptive of this,” Minkowski says, sitting in her office near Donaldson Center. “It is fresh, it’s the farm to table model, but it’s also very environmentally sustainable, which is what I was really intrigued by.”
Shrimp farmer in a landlocked city is not exactly what Minkowski envisioned for her life, but she’s embracing it. While Urban Seas is a business venture, Minkowski admits the push to start it comes less from entrepreneurism than from a desire to protect fish and the oceans.
Like her sustainable shrimp operation, Minkowski is not really what you’d expect. She is petite, dressed in jeans, Adidas sneakers, and wears an octopus charm necklace. Her youthful face belies her expertise. The 29-year-old speaks fluidly and competently about overfishing, imported seafood, the ins and outs of bacteria in shrimp production, how the aeration system works and the shrimp lifecycle.
Minkowski was always enamored with the water, she says. Growing up in Michigan near the Great Lakes, she spent her youth sailing and swimming. Her entire family also got scuba diving certification together.
“I’m one of those weird kids that in second grade, I was going to be a marine biologist,” Minkowski says with a shrug. “I flirted with being the fun things like artist, but never more than two days.”
That goal brought Minkowski to the College of Charleston to study marine biology. She went on to pursue a graduate degree in fisheries and fish at the University of Florida, where she says she really became interested in how to improve the seafood industry as a whole.
But when her husband got a job in Greenville two years ago, Minkowski found herself with a deep passion and desire to affect change but with no ocean around. When her job search efforts proved unsuccessful, she decided to take her passion for oceans and fish and turn it into a business.
In June, with her family’s help, Minkowski launched Urban Seas Aquaculture.
A dwindling commodity
When McPhee opens his much anticipated restaurant later this month he will not have shrimp on the menu. In fact, the chef says, he rarely has shrimp on the menu, because it’s hard to find. Even in South Carolina, McPhee says, he only has local shrimp part of the year.
“As soon as the amounts get low, we don’t see that shrimp in Greenville, it doesn’t make it up here,” McPhee says. “They sell what they can sell at the coast and then it’s done.”
While South Carolina is known for its shrimp, the state only produces about 4 to 5 million pounds a year, Stokes says. The SCDNR recognizes three seasons for certain varieties of shrimp: the roe white shrimp season begins in May, the brown shrimp season typically peaks during the summer months, and the offspring of the spring white shrimp crop peaks in the fall and ends in winter.
“We consume over three pounds of shrimp per person in the U.S.,” Stokes says. “So with a state as large as we have, we can’t even produce enough shrimp for the people in South Carolina, and a lot of the shrimp we catch goes out of state.”
That’s where a developed aquaculture system can help, and specifically the kind of system Minkowski is using. Stokes should know, he helped develop it. The technology is contained and recirculates water, which means no dumping and because it relies on the growth of biofloc, or beneficial bacteria to keep the shrimp healthy, it requires no chemicals or antibiotics, and thus has little to no environmental impact.
For these reasons, Seafood Watch, considered the preeminent authority on best seafood and fishing practices, has rated shrimp grown in self-contained recirculating systems one of the best you can eat.
“Aquaculture alone is not a panacea, but it is a huge component,” says Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium. “I think these closed aquaculture systems are really important.”
Eventually, Minkowski hopes to develop a hatchery side to her business. But for now, she sources shrimp from a certified hatchery in Florida, which has been approved by SCDNR. Minkowski gets the shrimp when they are three days old. She is using Pacific White shrimp, a variety that has been shown to be most successful in recirculating biofloc systems, Stokes said.
Growing the shrimp is a delicate science and balance of correct water temperature, balances salinity levels, the right amount of food and the right amount of shrimp per tank. Minkowski is registered with the Department of Agriculture and DNR who can look over her operation.
Once she works out the kinks, Minkowski says Urban Seas should have fresh shrimp available year round. She currently estimates the price at about $15 a pound, which equals about 21 to 24 shrimp. She started with 30,000 shrimp but anticipates that not all will make it.
Impacting food culture
On this Monday, Minkowski surveys the tanks of shrimp. While still minuscule, in just a few days they have gown. She dips a net in the water, sweeps it gently in one direction and pulls it up to the surface.
“There,” she says pointing, “you can see them.”
This will be the process once business is running: Minkowski will take orders, go catch the shrimp and deliver them. The process will likely be less than 24 hours, she says. She does not have buyers lined up, but has talked with a number of restaurants. She said she will ikely try to hold a tasting for restaurants once the shrimp are available.
Joe Clarke admits he’s intrigued by the idea of having a local source for fresh, quality shrimp. The executive chef and owner of American Grocery Restaurant goes to great lengths to ensure the quality of his food, but it begins with the ingredients, he says. In the past, Clarke has been unable to get SC shrimp from his smaller supplier, and so he’s turned to other, larger suppliers.
But there is a risk in that, he says.
“You have to really trust your vendor,” he says. “As a chef, you just educate yourself and make sure you’re not part of the problem.”
While the term “farm raised” has at times been scoffed at by chefs, who tended to look for “wild caught,” now it has a different connotation, Clarke says. As population grows and supply dwindles, farmed product is becoming a necessary reality.
“We’re probably headed that way for a lot of our sea bound creatures because there is a finite amount of most of them and it’s getting worse,” Clarke says. “So aquaculture is going to need to be part of the conversation for chefs and for restaurants.”
Both Clarke and McPhee say they want to taste the Urban Seas shrimp before they commit to using the local company, but they are encouraged by the idea of fresh, local, sustainable shrimp. And they say that if Urban Seas is what it has set out to be, the company could offer a whole new ingredient stream.
“If she’s able to pull those shrimp out of the water and they get here same day or next day...” McPhee says, pausing to contemplate the possibility. “Let me taste it. If it tastes like it’s coming from the coast, its coming from Greenville and its sustainable, I think it would be irresponsible not to consider something like farm raised shrimp.”