US’ biggest fresh shrimp farm survives hurricane’s direct hit, needs roads restored to resume business

‘It was surreal. Everybody was just shell-shocked. Cars were strewn in the mangroves and boats were all over the place. It was like walking through the apocalypse’

Robin Pearl, American Mariculture

By Jason Huffman | Oct. 4, 2022 17:12 BST

Everywhere American Mariculture founder Robin Pearl looked across Pine Island, Florida, on Thursday (Sept. 29), he saw crushed homes, tossed aside cars, washed ashore boats and down power lines, a grotesque landscape painted by Hurricane Ian.

Florida’s biggest barrier island, home to the US’ largest fresh shrimp grower, was one of the first locations the near-Category 5 storm with 150-mile per hour winds crossed over when it turned into the state, and Pearl was forced to hike hours to reach his 150-acre farm, sometimes hopping or crawling over fallen utility poles. The road connecting the island was destroyed, forcing him to hitch a ride on a fire chief’s boat, which dropped him off about 3.5 miles from his destination.

He was alone in the Florida heat with no fresh water, no cellphone reception and a lot of time to think. The more he walked and saw, the more he braced for what he might find when he reached the business he had dedicated 20 years of his life to build with some 4-5 million vannamei shrimp spread across 200 tanks.

“It was surreal,” he told Undercurrent News in a recent interview. “Everybody was just shell-shocked. Cars were strewn in the mangroves and boats were all over the place. It was like walking through the apocalypse.”

A sunken house in Matlacha, Florida, after Hurricane Ian. Photograph taken by Robin Pearl during his attempt to reach his shrimp farm on Pine Island.

However, as he drew nearer to his farm, he heard something that let him know everything was going to be alright. It was the hum of propane-powered generators. His team had turned all nine of them on before evacuating and only one had stopped running. They were pumping air into the tanks via both blowers and Venturi nozzles for some 4-5 million shrimp while also powering lights and other critical systems, including computer networks and cameras.

American Mariculture survived the fifth-most powerful storm to ever hit the US and is largely unscathed.

But now Pearl needs something else to restore his business: roads to connect it back to the mainland, so that it can deliver its shrimp, including brood stock to many other shrimp farms that rely upon it.

That could be a short-term problem, too.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) began mobilizing equipment, materials and crews on Sunday (Oct. 2), and expected access to Pine Island — a 17-mile-long, 2-mile-wide piece of land — to be restored by next Saturday (Oct. 8), as governor Ron DeSantis has directed the agency to expedite emergency repairs, reports Floridapolitics.com.

“The 9,000 residents of Pine Island — some still on the island and those not — are without power, water and other critical resources needed to recover from Hurricane Ian,” DeSantis said in a statement. “FDOT has the workforce and resources needed to quickly restore this road and bridge and allow these families access to their homes so they can start rebuilding their lives.”

“If they fix the bridge next week, we can probably start shipping animals in the next two weeks,” Pearl told
Undercurrent.

What’s left of a road connecting Pine Island to mainland Florida. Photograph by the Associated Press.

‘An American disaster’

The death toll for Hurricane Ian continues to climb in Florida, rising to 100 on Monday, including 54 in Lee County, where Pine Island is located, CNN reported.

More than 430,000 homes, businesses and other customers in Florida were still without power on Tuesday morning, according to PowerOutage.us. Power may not be restored on Fort Myers Beach for 30 days due its electrical infrastructure being destroyed, Lee County manager Roger Desjarlais is quoted as saying.

There are as many as 100 boil-water advisories around the state.

President Joe Biden, who is expected to visit the damaged parts of Florida on Wednesday, gave a speech earlier in which he called Hurricane Ian an “American disaster” and said “it’s likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history”.

Hurricane Ian making landfall in Florida. Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pearl feels very fortunate. In total, he estimated, his farm, which recently ramped up its focus on its broodstock and post-larvae shrimp sales over consumer sales, lost less than 5,000 pounds of shrimp. A piece of metal punctured the liner of a tank, causing all of the water to run out on the creatures inside.

“I expected the worst because of the devastation I saw,” he told Undercurrent. “But when I got to the farm, it was like, ‘Wow, this is not so bad. I mean, it’s a mess. But what we did worked, our generators were working, and the shrimp are alive! A building window had some type of debris against it and was cracked. Otherwise, nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Pearl said he spent about two hours repairing and connecting hoses that had come undone during the storm. Then, later, he returned with his workers and spent about two days cleaning up the facility.

But American Mariculture had other needs, too. The generators would’ve been able to operate for four to five days on the propane already secured, but more was going to be needed soon. So, Pearl secured a barge and, after working with the gas company, also a propane truck, which made its first arrival on Pine Island on Monday.

A barge carrying a propane truck arriving in Pine Island, Florida, as requested by American Mariculture. Photograph courtesy of American Mariculture.

One of the employees’ boats is being used to ferry 15-20 workers back and forth to the island, he said. The company has hired a man with a truck to bring them to the farm from a safe boat drop-off point, partially paying him in fuel.

There’s still no cellphone coverage, so regular trip shave to be scheduled for communication purposes.

Pearl is also helping out the Pine Island community by using the barge to deliver diesel to the water agency, while simultaneously providing the local population with ice from a machine on his farm. He gave out 15,000 lbs of ice to anyone who showed up with a cooler on Sunday, he said, noting how it felt good that everyone on Pine Island was pulling together to help each other.

Reversing course just before the storm

Pearl recounted for Undercurrent some of the many conversations had in the days before Hurricane Ian arrived and the critical steps his company took.

On Friday, Sept. 23, he said his team discussed the prospect of pulling greenhouse plastic covers off tanks, so they didn’t act as sails in very strong winds and result in much more structural damage. They decided to leave them on as most weather forecasts, at the time, projected Ian would pass by Pine Island on its way up the coast.

However, the prediction models changed and, by Saturday, Sept. 24, the odds started to increase that the hurricane might make landfall further south, closer to Pine Island. Pearl made the decision late on Sunday (Sept. 25) to reverse course, removing all of the covers first thing Monday morning.

The view walking up to the American Mariculture farm on Pine Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian. Photograph courtesy of American Mariculture.

“The tanks are concrete,” he said. “They’re filled like swimming pools. They’re not going anywhere. So we just wanted to protect the structure as much as possible.”

The team made other moves on Monday morning, too. It took more of its founder stock to a metal building called “the Ark”, kept about 20 miles inland to better protect them from a storm like Ian. The Ark also suffered no significant damage in the hurricane.

The company maxed out the use of its icemaker, filling every bin available — about 15,000 lbs. It harvested shrimp that were planned for harvest anyhow, rather than take a chance that they might not survive the event. It stopped feeding its other shrimp to limit the amount of nutrients in the water, and therefore the oxygen demand should aeration fail.

American Mariculture’s Robin Pearl scoops shrimp at the broodstock supplier’s facility in the US state of Florida.

On Tuesday (Sept. 27) at about 2 p.m., the company finished preparations and “called it quits”, getting out all of the 20-25 of its 65-75 employees who work on the island, Pearl recounted. By Wednesday, everyone was hunkered down in homes or shelters where they would be safe and secure, he said.

In Pearl’s case, that meant returning to his home in Fort Myers and bringing with him Tim Morris, the company’s director of animal husbandry, whose residence was only about half a mile from the farm. They weren’t out of the danger zone, as the hurricane also did significant damage to Fort Myers, and Pearl said the water came up to about a foot from his door.

American Mariculture has faced a number of challenges in recent times. Just weeks before the hurricane, Pearl talked to Undercurrent about his expansion efforts being curtailed due to labor and construction material shortages.

The past few years also saw Pearl fight allegations that he and AMI subsidiary American Penaeid(API) unlawfully took Brookshire, Texas-based Primo Broodstock’s trade secret for a high-surviving shrimp line, as reported by Undercurrent. In November 2021, the court ordered Pearl and API to pay the plaintiff $10.5 million in damages. Pearl is appealing the decision.

But his shrimp farm’s ability to survive a direct hit from such a devastating hurricane has given Pearl a very positive feeling.

“We learned something,” he said. “We learned we can survive a storm like this.”

American Mariculture providing ice to local residents of Pine Island, Florida, after Hurricane Ian. Photograph courtesy of American Mariculture.

Pearl added that he knows there are improvements to be made and he’s already drawing up ideas for changes. The exercise of taking the covers off all of the greenhouses was a major task and the farm is only producing maybe 400 or 500 metric tons of shrimp per year, for example. Once the farm gets to producing 5,000t/year, “there’s physically no way of removing all of the tarps every time there’s a storm threat,” he said. “So we need a better system.”

Contact the author
jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com

Link to original article here.