Robin Pearl envisions path toward American shrimp dominance with American Penaeid, Sun Shrimp

Robin Pearl (right) with his son at the 2023 Seafood Expo North America.

Robin Pearl, the president and CEO of Saint James City, Florida, U.S.A.-based shrimp farm and genetics firm American Penaeid and the Sun Shrimp brand has become one of the world’s foremost experts on shrimp farming.

His original fascination with aquaculture has its roots in his childhood, and wanting his children to also experience the joy of catching pond-stocked trout.

“Growing up in Europe, we used to do that all the time. What I wanted to do was build a place in South Florida where people could take their kids to catch a fish, clean it, and take it home so mommy could cook it,” he told SeafoodSource. “But I very quickly learned that trout was not a good species for Florida’s heat.”

Through his research on trout farming, Pearl first encountered the idea of shrimp aquaculture. Looking for an entrepreneurial project, in 1999, he co-founded OceanBoy Farms in South Florida, raising salt-water shrimp in low-salinity ponds. The company had initial success, growing over a million pounds of shrimp in its first year, and was able to raise over USD 65 million (EUR 60.4 million) for expansion. But, with all the money raised, Pearl lost control of the company and was kicked out of its management in 2003.

“They were looking to flip it to Wall Street and it was just not what I wanted to do,” he said. “I thought I was a wealthy man because I had my founder shares, but five years after my departure, that company went bankrupt. I lost my whole investment. I call it my USD 65 million education.”

The experience left Pearl dissatisfied. In 2013, he co-founded Sun Shrimp on 75 acres on Pine Island, in Southwest Florida, complete with an on-site genetics laboratory, a hatchery, 24 grow-out greenhouses, a packing plant, a lab, and other support facilities. The farm currently has a food-production capacity of 350 to 400 metric tons, but Pearl admits his passion is for shrimp genetics. American Penaeid sells shrimp seed and broodstock grown with what it calls “industry-leading genetics,” and has dedicated 150 tanks to genetics experimentation.

“When we first started, we had a talented team, we have good equipment, but our shrimp died. We spent a lot of time and money with consultants and technicians, and they all concluded that they were dying of vibrio. We spent two years trying to solve this problem. We tried everything and nothing worked until we looked at genetics,” he said. “We had shrimp that were growing fast and dying, and then we brought in shrimp that lived but weren’t growing. While the surviving shrimp were not the solution either, it at least confirmed that genetics were our main problem, and thus the solution. After a lot of trials, we ended up solving the genetic issue, and in the process, this led us to become one of the largest shrimp-genetics companies in the world.”

Pearl said he used an Ecuadorian model of mixing various vannamei shrimp in a pond and studying which ones performed the best using genotyping to find the best-surviving families.

“Everybody likes to blame disease when their shrimp die. But I blamed it on the fact that for many years, the industry went after the fastest-growing shrimp, and those shrimp are weaker or less capable of fending off disease. We've learned that, over time, that doesn't work,” he said. “Instead, we focused on survival first, growth second. For example, we found that if you have a tank with a 25-gram shrimp average, and you have one 35-gram shrimp in that pond, that large shrimp would traditionally be chosen by genetics companies, but experience has shown that you are better off selecting a 29-gram shrimp that comes from a very high-surviving family [identified] using genotyping analysis. Yes, it is not the fastest-growing shrimp, but it has exceptionally good survival and because it is still much larger than the average, we are increasing growth rates while selecting for survival first....

Photo by Cliff White/SeafoodSource

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