Shrimp Farming in the Vegas Desert

October 11th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Finding a path to sustainability in an unlikely place.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Nearly a decade ago, I drove northeast out of the Davis Mountains of west Texas into the barren plain of the Permian Basin on the advice of a gourmand I trust. His directions: detour 25 miles off of IH-10 to a tiny town called Imperial and ask for a lean, weathered marine biologist named Bart. There, in the most landlocked place imaginable, Bart the biologist would provide me the most delicious shrimp I had ever eaten, grown in his backyard.  

Bart had gleaned fame from farming shrimp like cattle in 64 acres of shallow desert ponds, tapped from the 270-million-year-old Permian Sea Basin, in the Chihuahuan Desert. His was the first certified organic shrimp farm in the nation.

But in 2004, the USDA’s National Organic Program removed the organic stamp on which Bart’s business relied. The USDA had never issued specific industry standards for organic seafood, so Bart had relied on a loophole that allowed farm-raised seafood to qualify based on their farm’s adherence to the guidelines for organic livestock farming. Competition with cheap Asian imports and limited distribution options made the business too difficult to sustain, and the Permian Sea Shrimp Store came to an end.

Yet a new generation of shrimp farming is rising from the Las Vegas desert. In July, Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp opened under sprawling white tents near I-15 and US-93 in the town of Apex. Though 36,000 square-feet of covered, man-made shrimp farms may lack the romance of rehydrating ancient sea beds, Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp does have science, and green technology, behind it.

Pathogen-free Mexican white shrimp larvae arrive at the facility and are grown in 44 ponds housed in carefully monitored tanks, crafted from recycled shipping containers filled with treated water in air-conditioned rooms. After 120 days the shrimp are harvested and shipped to local restaurants. The tents and containers allow for tight control over environmental conditions – removing inconvenient variables of sea-bed farming such as birds picking off and contaminating the crop.

Blue Oasis CEO Scott McManus hopes his local, farm-raised desert shrimp will soon replace the Asian imports that tourists are currently eating on the strip. He expects to produce 450,000 pounds of shrimp annually to start, and the tent farms are prepared for national expansion. McManus says his company is planning a “massive rollout” in Dallas, Kansas City, Reno and other cities. Such an expansion is possible, McManus notes, because the farms operate independently from the environments in which they’re located. “We could put them in Siberia,” McManus says.

Just as organic certification made the difference for “old-school” desert shrimp-farmers like Bart Reid, McManus says consumers today are extremely concerned with sustainability in the seafood industry. McManus says it’s about putting a “net protein gain” back into the system. While it takes 25 pounds of seafood to raise one pound of tuna, he says, “We’re doubling the amount we get out of our shrimp.” Moreover, McManus notes, Blue Oasis isn’t taxing an already stressed desert water system. The facility recycles water used in self-cleaning tanks, with evaporating water reclaimed through a unique air system. “We use less water here than the average home in Las Vegas,” McManus says. 

Now it’s harvest time at Blue Oasis, and Las Vegas restaurateurs are taking notice. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Rick Moonen are all on the list of potential customers. After years of importing blocks of frozen, peeled shrimp from Asia, chefs are intrigued by the possibility of purchasing whole shrimp – head and shell – alive or frozen. Plus, McManus claims that these shrimp are just as tasty as their outdoor ancestors: “Shrimp are scavengers. They’re a product of their environment. These shrimp live the best day every day – well, until you eat them.”

How do you feel about shrimp farming? Does it seem like a more sustainable, local option to you? When you’re standing in the seafood section of your local market or ordering seafood in a restaurant, what’s the responsible choice?