An indoor shrimp-aquaculture project is expanding as the demand for its product exceeds its current supply.

Andrews, South Carolina, U.S.A.-based Piscaria is a 32,000-square-foot indoor shrimp farming operation producing fresh shrimp for customers in the U.S. Southeast. Demand has begun to outstrip the supply the company can provide,  according to Piscaria CEO Rick Armstrong, so the company is working on an expansion that will include a 50,000-square-foot farming facility.

While the company itself was founded in 2006, Armstrong told SeafoodSource his dream of establishing a local aquaculture venture is nearly a half-century old.

“It has been a long time. I remember in 1972, I believe it was, right around the time my son was born, my brother came to me and asked me if we could buy some of these old oil tanks and turn them into fish tanks,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong researched the idea – a more complicated task in the days before the internet – and learned it was probably better left as an idea given the size of the tanks and the amount of cleaning required.

Growing things in tanks, however, stuck around. Later on, Armstrong moved into growing algae, initially as a substitute for biofuel. After determining fuel was a “dead end,” Armstrong then moved toward nutraceuticals, and eventually began growing algae for the purpose of supplying oyster mariculture operations.

“We had this 700-gallon tank, you put it on a timer, and you put trays of oysters in another tank. It draws that water and consumes the algae spores in the water,” Armstrong said.

That was was how Armstrong began growing shrimp, which at first weren’t for consumption.

“We started throwing some shrimp in there, because we needed something to keep picking at the oyster shell,” he said.

The shells, he said, needed stress in order to prevent becoming too soft or brittle – hence the shrimp. That initial use for shrimp started Armstrong’s foray into researching the shrimp industry – and realizing that most of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is imported.

From there, Piscaria was born as a shrimp farm. The company settled on using a biofloc system for its aquaculture operations, in part because when calibrated correctly, the system is less costly to run.

“Operating costs are so important in this business to be competitive, it’s ridiculous,” Armstrong said. “Biofloc is basically heterotrophic bacteria, it’s nothing that’s not already in the ocean.”

The concentrations of bacteria, pH balance, salinity, and other factors are extremely important in a biofloc aquaculture system – so Armstrong invented a sensor that allows him to keep track of the levels in his tanks at all times.

“I can read in a matter of a few seconds and know exactly what the biofloc count is,” he said.

Over the years, and a lot of experimentation, the company has established a feeding cycle and density that has allowed it to maintain production levels, and now on average has four successful harvests a year, using tanks that only need one motor running at any time.

To further reduce his operating costs, Armstrong has turned to alternative energy sources.

“I incorporated a very high-efficiency wood-fire boiler, because you need to heat your tanks and the building,” he said.

He is also planning to utilize solar arrays to reduce energy costs, and use a biomass boiler for further heating. Not only does the alternative energy reduce operating costs, it also makes the farm more environmentally friendly.

The company has also settled in on a stocking rate that allows it to meet the demand it has seen from the market.

“We typically will stock at a certain point, then pick up a partial harvest and pick up a 40-count shrimp,” he said. “Then, the next weight you want is roughly a 25 count, and we can grow larger.”

Armstrong said the current demand for 25-count is such that there’s little reason to grow much larger.

“We’re shooting for that 25-count. I don’t think I could add enough tanks on that site to produce enough, because the demand is just so high that it’s crazy,” he said. “Our price-per-pound to grow them is coming down every harvest, and we can grow four harvests a year. And adding the in-line instrumentation limits the number of people you have to have.”

Currently, the company is in its second phaseof growth, which consists of filling the new 50,000-square-foot building with tanks.

“We are in the middle of building the tanks two at a time, and I would say when we complete phase two, which will probably take a couple years, that will produce roughly 250,000 to 400,000 pounds of shrimp per year,” Armstrong said.

While demand is high, Armstrong said he doesn’t plan to push the company’s growth too quickly.

“You don’t want to go too fast. People make that mistake a lot,” he said. “You have to train your additional people, and it’s not something that happens overnight.”

Armstrong said he plans to be in the business for the long haul. He said he’s proud of producing a product that has a low-impact on the environment thanks to his alternative-energy solutions.

“I’m very enthusiastic about the whole thing. I really enjoy this, doing what I can, my part for the environment,” he said.  

Photo courtesy of Piscaria

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