News Saline Solution: Doctors Find Answer for Black Belt Shrimp Farms

Saline Solution: Doctors Find Answer for Black Belt Shrimp Farms

Saline Solution: Doctors Find Answer for Black Belt Shrimp Farms
November 2, 2005 |

Saltwater shrimp are splashing around in Black Belt ponds — just as big and feisty as their brothers on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.The reason is easy to understand. Alabama’s coastline once ended in the region. It happened millions of years ago. Saltwater aquifers left over from the prehistoric era rarely have been used — until now. Ancient history is now providing a boost for a handful of Alabama farmers.”Some call us pioneers,” said Auburn University professor emeritus Rudy Schmittou. “I don’t know if that’s really the case or not. We just might be foolish or people who like big challenges.”As other Black Belt farmers prepare to harvest their cotton crops, Schmittou and his partner, David Teichert-Coddington, are busy gathering hundreds of thousands of shrimp from their 16 ponds in Boligee.Ditto for Dickie Odom and Bryan Compton — two neighbors who are in the same business in the area. Lowndes County farmer Lee Jackson has a similar, but smaller operation.Odom was the first to raise saltwater shrimp in the landlocked Black Belt. The others saw the potential, and it wasn’t long before they were also involved.Teichert-Coddington and Schmittou brought with them an expertise that could help turn the corner for inland saltwater shrimp production.The two friends, both of whom have aquaculture doctorates from Auburn, traveled the world speaking about a subject that has been near and dear to their hearts for decades.Not that long ago, it would have been unthinkable to harvest shrimp from anywhere other than large bodies of water such as oceans. Catfish has become popular in some Black Belt counties, but few could imagine raising saltwater shrimp in the middle of cotton and cattle country.Geological discoveries have unlocked the mysteries of the earth’s formation and, among them, is the huge aquifer that lies beneath Marengo, Greene, Lowndes and other counties in the region.Salty drinking water is no secret to the people who live in the area. They’ve gotten used to the taste.If shrimp can grow in the Gulf of Mexico, why not farther north?
That was the question asked and answered by the men who have been raising saltwater shrimp the past few years.”We’re 156 miles from the Gulf, but science has allowed us to do what we’re doing with the shrimp,” said Schmittou, referring to the saltwater aquifers. “…We’re trying to take advantage of it.”
When the two AU-trained scientists decided to become partners in the inland saltwater shrimp operation, they were well aware it was a calculated risk.Teichert-Coddington, who worked with Odom at first before venturing off to launch his own production site, spent many sleepless nights at the halfway point of his initial production year.In 2001, when they began their operation, Teichert-Coddington and Schmittou stocked each of their ponds — 10 at the time – with 120,000 larvae. They were confident they’d grow to maturity.It didn’t happen. Most of the larvae died, and then vanished in the ponds. The partners were at a loss at first to understand what had occurred.”Our overall survival rate was less than 10 percent,” said Teichert-Coddington. “We knew something was drastically wrong.”He conducted water tests and read as much as he could about saltwater shrimp. The strain became evident. He lost about 20 pounds. That wasn’t good because he only weighed 150 pounds when he arrived in Greene County.He credits Auburn University with helping solve the problem. Water tests at the university determined the lack of an adequate amount of potassium in the ponds led to the loss of the shrimp larvae.”Sea water has more than 20 types of salts,” said Teichert-Coddington. “Some are major. Some are minor. Potassium is one of the major ingredients, and that’s where much of the problem was traced.”The partners ordered plenty of potassium and dumped it into their ponds. It was just enough to match the proportional amount in the Gulf of Mexico.Voila! It worked.”I was astounded,” said Teichert-Coddington, 51. “Literally, overnight, the mortality stopped. Never in my 16 years of research had I seen something react so rapidly. Talk about a silver bullet! Well, we found ours. It was potassium.”He was thrilled at first, but wasn’t about to jump to conclusions. He kept a close watch on the impact of the added potassium. A few weeks later, he had more tests run at Auburn and was happy to find out everything seemed to be shipshape with the shrimp.The potassium solution salvaged their first season. It was a rough ending to a promising start, but the two men felt the future would be better.”Our first year about killed us,” said Teichert-Coddington. “I’ll be paying on our loan forever, it seems. I wasn’t able to pay anything on it the first year.”Peter Reynolds, vice president at Robertson Banking Co. in Demopolis, said the bank’s contribution is “minor when compared to the capital they put into it.””Normally, we would not have been involved in a start-up operation of that type, but, because of the capital they were able to commit and the experience level they had, there were some things we could do and feel comfortable with,” Reynolds said.Teichert-Coddington and Schmittou also are appreciative of the assistance offered by the Alabama Farmers Federation during their crucial formative period.”Alfa has been helping us deal with the crazy bureaucracy involved in the shrimp industry,” said Teichert-Coddington. “Seafood operations are controlled by the State Department of Natural Resources on the coast. We’re inland, but, since we grow shrimp, we fall under their jurisdiction.”He said he and his partner even need a special permit to sell their shrimp — a requirement that has him scratching his head at times.”I should be able to truck my shrimp on down the road and sell it, but, once I leave my farm, I need that permit to sell my own product,” he said. “Alfa is helping us through the Legislature. We hope to eventually work out our problems.”Hurricane Katrina did not destroy the coastal shrimping industry, but it did put a crimp on the inland saltwater operators, especially when transportation is involved.Schmittou, 69, said one pond can produce a tractor-trailer load of shrimp for hungry customers, “but we’re having trouble finding the trucks we need because of Katrina.”Another problem is collecting the shrimp. Schmittou said special nets were ordered for their ponds from a Louisiana company, but the hurricane delayed completion of the request.Instead of scooping the shrimp into the nets, the partners have to use suction and gravity flow to get them into a weighing machine. Laborers should also have been picking shrimp — one-by-one — from the muddy pond bottoms and banks as the water is drained.Some of the ponds are as big as five acres or more–providing plenty of room to raise saltwater shrimp. Schmittou said the shrimp at his farm average about seven inches in length with 18 of them equaling a pound. Each weighs about 25 grams.Teichert-Coddington, who was born in the west African nation of Liberia where his missionary parents worked for more than a decade, said he and Schmittou expected a yield of 3,500 pounds per acre in their second year. The result was closer to 3,700 pounds per acre.That means a lot of shrimp to capture for processing later at plants along the Gulf Coast. This year’s yield is expected to be pretty good, but the two are not taking anything for granted.”With the nets, when they arrive, we’ll surround the shrimp like you would a herd of cattle and drive them into the opening of a pipe,” Schmittou said. “Then they are sucked up and pumped into the weighing machine.”Some of the shrimp that popped into the machine recently had a reddish color. They were dead — a condition that raised more concerns for the partners.”When we started this operation, we anticipated that it would take us a year or more through trial and error to work out our problems,” Schmittou said. “There’s no model for what we’re doing. We’re having to create a model.”Nothing happens overnight and the two scientists don’t have to be told about that. Teichert-Coddington said geologists estimate the saltwater aquifer under their property to be about 18 million years old.”We find shark teeth, huge oyster shells and plenty of vertebra on our property,” he said. “This is where the Gulf of Mexico stopped.” Former newspaper reporter and freelance writer Alvin Benn lives in Selma.

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