Little Shrimp in a Big Pond

Hawai‘i might be small, but it’s a major player in the global shrimp industry
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by PF Bentley.

Rusty Arneson meets me by the big red sign for Romy’s Kahuku Prawns & Shrimp. It’s late morning on a Tuesday, so the line at the iconic shrimp shack is only ten deep. Rusty sees me eyeing the line and knows what I’m about to ask. “We sell 100 percent of the shrimp we grow on the farm here. There’s no way we can expand.”  

Romy’s started selling farm-to-table seafood long before such a thing had a name. The aquaculture community in general is known for razor-thin margins and frequent bankruptcies. Hawai‘i’s fish farmers seem to have had the worst of the bad luck, but there are more than a few shrimp enterprises that have persisted (with a combination of hard work, ground-breaking research and unique marketing). I’m checking out some of the biggest and best-known shrimp farms to find the story behind my spicy garlic shrimp plate lunch.

Romy’s is one of many shrimp shacks that line the route along O‘ahu’s North Shore, but it might be the most famous. I want to meet the man who made it as a farm-to-table pioneer, but Romy, it turns out, is extremely shy. His son-in-law Rusty is a big, gregarious tour guide happy to tell me the story. “He started with aquaculture in his laundry room, all kine aquaculture,” Rusty says as we drive along the narrow causeways separating the farm’s thirty-one ponds. “Romy volunteered with the state Department of Agriculture, and in 1989 he leased this place.” Romulo Felix Aguinaldo, now 69, came from the Philippines and worked as an insurance salesman for ten years before getting into aquaculture. His farm employs about twenty people including his daughter Kaylene, who runs the kitchen, and her husband, Rusty, who does just about everything else.

Small-scale operations like Romy’s are only one part of Hawai‘i’s shrimp aquaculture industry, which supplies much of the world with breeding stock and spawned a global market for Pacific White shrimp.

Rusty, Kaylene, Romy and Romy’s wife, Terry, live on the farm. When livestock is involved, there’s never a day off. When the power goes out, Rusty fires up the generator within twenty minutes or the shrimp in the hatchery will begin to die. Harvests are tough work in all weather, but it’s a pretty idyllic life on this farm, in the shadow of Kahuku’s wind turbines. For fun on a Friday night, they catch shrimp with a cast net and drop them directly on the grill. Rusty started working at Romy’s right out of high school, when he was dating Kaylene. He even built a cross-training gym on the farm he calls RusFit.  

We drive to a corner pond where three workers are slogging through knee-deep water, pushing, pulling and heaving a giant seine net. Blue herons stalk the shoreline looking for a quick snack. “Those I don’t mind,” Rusty says, even though the herons are known to eat a pound of shrimp, fish and other creatures per day. “We still harvest about two hundred pounds of shrimp per pond. Our biggest haul was 780 pounds!” From the net, the shrimp, along with the sunfish he also raises, go directly into a holding tank the size of a small swimming pool. “We don’t refrigerate. We keep them here for a few days, then straight to the kitchen.” Fresh salt water from a nearby well serves to clean the shrimp and sunfish while they await their fate in the kitchen, which is within shouting distance.

Of all the shrimp shacks on O‘ahu’s North Shore, Romy’s is probably the best known. The reason for this notoriety lies behind the shack: Thirty-one ponds that are the source of Romy’s famous garlic shrimp.

A thirty-five-minute drive south from Romy’s, on the edge of Kāne‘ohe bay, sits a cluster of shrimp ponds on Kualoa Private Nature Reserve. Almost every morning at dawn, Anela Garaganza walks out on the narrow dock and casts her net. She dumps her catch into what looks like a laundry basket and sorts it. “Not quite ready,” Anela mutters. The largest shrimp is twenty grams by her estimation. Market size is twenty-eight grams. “This pond needs three more weeks.” Anela, 28, is Kualoa’s primary shrimp aquaculturist. She loves the view and taking care of “all the little lives.” Of the nine dedicated shrimp ponds across thirteen acres at Kualoa, Anela will harvest from one by cast net for three weeks, then seine to snag the stragglers. This isn’t commercial-scale production that supplies the world with shrimp ceviche, but it is a nice little farm-to-consumer niche.

Taylor Kellerman, director of agriculture at Kualoa, stops by for an update. “Another three weeks on this one? Maybe next week you can seine pond number two,” he says. He’s focused on consistent production, not maximum volume. About twelve thousand pounds of shrimp per year end up in the cooler at the visitor center shop under the Kualoa Grown label. “We need to keep a steady supply for the local market. If we come up short one week, regular customers miss out, and we don’t want that,” Taylor tells me. Demand is consistent and expansion is possible, but I get the feeling that no one wants the place to change that much.

Just then a tour bus pulls in. “Ah, the farm-to-table tour,” Taylor says, and he smiles for the selfie-stick crowd uploading the scenery to their social media feeds. Taylor tells me this new tour makes the rounds of Kualoa’s ever-growing ag ventures: fruit and veggie gardens, fishponds, oyster ponds, free-range eggery, piggery and the cattle ranch. The three-hour tour culminates in a farm-fresh meal of all of the above prepared by chef Kimo Kauhane. The tour moves on, Anela heads off to her other duties (stocking the beef cooler) and Taylor gets word he needs to track down an escaped cow. A typical day at Kualoa.

Shrimp farms like Romy’s and Kualoa are only the most publicly visible part of a much larger, robust and growing aquaculture industry in Hawai‘i, and the Islands play a significant role in an even larger and mostly invisible global shrimp industry.

The bumper sticker on Steve Chaikin’s truck says, “If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place.” He isn’t obeying his own bumper sticker today, though. The owner of Molokai Sea Farms is driving to the wharf, the hardware store and the truck yard in Kaunakakai like it’s Honolulu rush hour. Kaunakakai might be Moloka‘i’s biggest town, but it hasn’t got a single traffic light. 

Steve, 62, is the sole remaining partner in Molokai Sea Farms, outlasting his former partners on the strength of his longtime passion for sustainable agriculture and his do-anything work ethic. Steve and his crew might have to work on plumbing, pumps, electrical, heavy machinery and, of course, farming shrimp all in a single day. “This is Moloka‘i. There are no Yellow Pages here,” he says. And despite all of his experience, “you never really figure it out. What you do one year might not work that well the next year.” Shrimp farming, he says, “is a little bit of science and little bit of art.” 

His facility just west of Kaunakakai has a hatchery, living quarters for employees and ponds that seem to go on forever. I tag along as Steve zips around in his golf cart, supervising his crew while they clean out the feed storage container and unload a truck full of lumber. The feed storage is the only structure on the farm with air-conditioning, and Steve’s shrimp go through forty thousand pounds of feed per year. The lumber is for the solar array he’s installing to cut down on his $200-a-day electrical bill. 

Kualoa Private Nature Reserve in Windward O‘ahu is home to nine ponds that collectively yield about twelve thousand pounds of shrimp per year on average. Once harvested, they’re sold at the Kualoa visitor center under the Kualoa Grown label.

This property’s twenty-three ponds were constructed in the late ’80s, when the Department of Agriculture was incentivizing aquaculture. Steve and a friend took over in 1989 after the prior owners “ran into all the usual problems of intensive shrimp production”: disease, floods, cold snaps that slow the shrimps’ metabolism. “It wasn’t lucrative but we paid the bills,” Steve says. “One day in the ’90s a shipment of fresh shrimp came in from Ecuador, and that instantly changed the market.” Shrimp farmed abroad were cheaper to produce, so why would Hawai‘i consumers bother with more expensive local shrimp? This was long before locavorism was part of the lexicon. 

Steve adapted, switching to the popcorn shrimp popular with the local Filipino customers, but times were tight. “Then one day I got a fax from China. They wanted our PL”—post-larval breeding pairs, that is, which can survive a long trip in specially designed coolers and are just on the cusp of spawning. Why did China want PLs so badly they would pay up to $60 per pair? “When you fly over the US, you see nothing but farm fields, right? Some places in China, it’s like that but all shrimp ponds.” Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador each have millions more acres dedicated to shrimp production than Hawai‘i could possibly offer, but with such large monocultures comes a major risk: disease. 

In the shrimp world, Hawai‘i is a tiny little burg in the middle of a vast ocean, where shrimp are rare compared with fertile waters like the Gulf of Mexico (think Bubba Gump). Such isolation is a good thing—disease is uncommon here. Steve’s farms have never had an outbreak. But, in the vast aquaculture regions of the world, diseases travel fast via escaped shrimp, people, birds and floodwaters. One way to keep yield-sapping disease under control is antibiotics, but these are expensive and deleterious to the environment. A better way is to start a crop with breeding pairs that have been verified to be free of the pathogens that can mutate into fatal shrimp flu. Steve saw the opportunity and made PLs his business. Thus, the Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) shrimp industry was born. 

Steve might have been a pioneer shrimp farmer, but most credit Dustin Moss of Hawai‘i Pacific University’s Oceanic Institute as the “first man.” I catch Dustin at OI, as it is known, tucked between Sea Life Park and the steep cliffs of Waimānalo, O‘ahu. “It’s a neat little spot,” Dustin says, showing me a dozen weathered tanks of bubbling water, giant Jacuzzis for shrimp of all ages. He’s been involved in OI’s shrimp program as long as anyone, having started as an intern here almost thirty years ago. He took a few years off-island to earn his master’s from Auburn University before returning to the University of Hawai‘i for his doctorate and assuming his role as director of OI’s shrimp department. Regarding his facility, he looks like less of a proud papa and more of a concerned foreman at a construction site. 

Oceanic Institute is and has been at the forefront of serious industry research. It might look as humble as Romy’s, Kualoa’s and Molokai Sea Farms’ facilities, but the science here has spawned nothing less than a revolution in global shrimp farming. Due to strict biosecurity protocols, I’m not allowed into the hatchery and labs. Dustin tells me the larval shrimp are isolated, raised in extremely pure seawater, then meticulously tested for disease. In the early ’90s, OI and partners started breeding SPF Pacific white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei), optimized for commercial farming operations. Up to that point, Pacific white shrimp had never been farmed in captivity, partially because minor diseases passed on through the generations could mutate into something catastrophic. The same had been done for the black tiger prawn (Penaeus monodon), previously regarded as a byproduct of milkfish aquaculture, then becoming a viable monoculture after a selective breeding program from Taiwan cracked the code of their domestication.

At OI, PLs are grown large enough, then implanted with a plastic chip no bigger than a grain of rice, imprinted with tracking codes. Shipped to other research facilities or partnering shrimp farms, these PLs spawn hundreds of thousands of baby shrimp. Growth rates and environmental variables are sent back to OI so researchers know which is the best batch. The result of this tireless research over the years is a global explosion of Pacific white shrimp production—2018 sales totaled $20.8 billion. Hawai‘i’s sales of breed stock are close to $24 million. 

As Kualoa’s main shrimp aquaculturist, Anela Garaganza says she likes taking care of “all the little lives.” Once the shrimp in a pond are a marketable size, Garaganza will harvest the pond by cast net for three weeks and then seine to catch the stragglers.

I ask what OI does with the leftover PLs. Dustin says they give them away. Steve at Molokai Sea Farms got some. Kualoa and Romy’s got some, too. “We often send some PLs to farms around the Islands. It’s goodwill but it’s also about cooperation. We want to keep the shrimp industry in Hawai‘i strong.”

But does OI get a cut from the massive shrimp market? Dustin shrugs. The payoff is more goodwill. “We have all kinds of research partnerships,” he says. He tells me about the research in high-density shrimp rearing that promises to be much more efficient and clean than current methods, then digresses. “What we do for the industry is produce a bunch of knowledgeable people that go off to do great things in shrimp aquaculture.” HH