Vegas company gambles on desert shrimp farm

July 28, 2011 - 5:44 AM
Desert Shrimp

In this photo taken July 14, 2011, Adian Zettell, Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp head scientist, holds up an adult shrimp at the company's farm in Las Vegas. The shrimp are grown in artificial ponds splayed across a temperature controlled room, which are expected to grow half a million pounds of shrimp a year, enough to fuel Las Vegas' insatiable all-you-can-eat-shrimp habit for about a week, according to some estimates. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

NORTH LAS VEGAS (AP) — In an arid field of Joshua trees and desert brush 30 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, an isolated farm is raising thousands of recently hatched shrimp in salt-water tanks filled from a nearby well.

The artificial ponds splayed across a temperature-controlled room are expected to grow half a million pounds of shrimp a year, enough to fuel Las Vegas' insatiable all-you-can-eat-shrimp habit for about a week, according to some estimates.

The notion of any type of farm in the Mojave Desert, especially one that grows white shrimp from the Pacific Ocean, comes across as improbable. That's the point, said the masterminds behind this unusual experiment in modern seafood production.

"One of the things that makes our technology so unique and so special is our ability to place these plants and facilities anyplace in the United States or the world for that matter," said Scott McManus, CEO of Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp. "We can put it in the desert. We can literally put it in Siberia."

Blue Oasis' began growing shrimp in its plant outside Las Vegas in April and hopes to have its first class of product out in the market by late August. The intended consumers are the high-end restaurants of the Las Vegas Strip, where buzz words like sustainability, organic and local have become a mantra. Customers will be able to purchase the whole shrimp — head, shell and all, alive or not — a rare offer in an industry where many chefs are accustomed to blocks of frozen, peeled shrimp delivered weekly from Texas.

Blue Oasis raises its shrimp for up to 120 days in carefully monitored tanks in an air-conditioned room kept at 80 degrees. The shrimp are fed a mix of algae and seafood proteins up to 12 times a day. McManus said it's the largest facility of its kind in the United States.

Blue Oasis is promoting itself as a clean, sustainable alternative to wild-caught and farm-raised shrimp that can threaten surrounding ecosystems.

"The overfishing, the damage that is done by trawling in the Gulf or other parts of the world, all those are issues with how we get our seafood," McManus said. "What we do here eliminates that whole process. Everything that we do obviously is closed in here within the system so we are not destroying the environment, we are not destroying mangroves. It truly makes it environmentally friendly."

The brand has caught the interest of some of Las Vegas' most acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs.

"Everything from a sustainability standpoint is super exciting," said Rick Moonen, a former contestant in Bravo TV's "Top Chef Masters" and the chef behind Rick Moonen's RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay hotel and casino. Moonen said he was also intrigued because the product will be sold with the shrimp heads still attached. Heads, he said, make "cool as hell presentations."

But Moonen said he won't commit to serving the shrimp in his restaurant until he inspects the final product. "I want to see this succeed but I can't vouch for what is going to be coming out in three or four weeks until I taste it," he said.

Globally, about 60 percent of shrimp production in the world is pulled by fishermen, while 40 percent is from farming, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. White shrimp are the most popular seafood in the world, generating $9 billion each year, according to the international agency.

Andrew Blanchard of the American Shrimp Processors Association said American fisherman hit hard by hurricanes, a flood of cheap farm-raised shrimp and the BP oil spill have been struggling to survive in recent years. Blanchard, president of the Indian Ridge Shrimp Co. in Chauvin, La., said it was too soon to tell whether the Blue Oasis model would contribute to fishermen's woes or not.

"I'll be darned," he said when told of the indoor shrimp farm. "I have never heard of anything like that. I don't even know if you can do anything like that."

On a recent visit to the Blue Oasis plant, the oldest shrimp were only halfway throughout the four-month growing process. They appeared translucent and were odorless. At full capacity, Blue Oasis expects to house 4 million shrimp at a time, ensuring a perpetual harvest for its clients.

Blue Oasis recycles all the water in its self-cleaning tanks and any water that evaporates is reclaimed through the air system. McManus said the company is not abusing Nevada's scarce water resources.

"We use less water here than the average home in Las Vegas," McManus said.

Company officials hope to eventually open farms in New York, Dallas, Chicago and other major U.S. cities.

Adian Zettell, Blue Oasis' chief scientist, never attended college, but learned biology from his father, he said. As an initiation ritual, all of his employees must eat one uncooked shrimp during their service at the desert farm.

"You got to stand behind your product to the point where you are willing to pull it out of the pond and eat it raw," he said.

Blue Oasis salesmen approached Border Grill, another upscale restaurant in Mandalay Bay, about using the shrimp shortly after the farm opened. Executive Chef Mike Minor said he expected the shrimp would taste strange or artificial, but was ultimately surprised by the result after he cooked them.

"They are kind of nice and sweet and tender," he said. "I liked it. It's sweet. It's a little bit different of a texture, a little bit sweeter of a flavor."