Rising from the ashes
NaturalShrimp emerges from challenges with new perspective
To say that 2020 was a rebuilding year for NaturalShrimp seems like a massive understatement.
Just days after the World Health Organization declared a global COVID-19 pandemic, a fire erupted at the company’s La Coste, Texas, facility in the late hours of March 18, 2020. Tom Untermeyer, chief technology and chief operations officer, got a phone call with news that the whole building was up in flames. By the time the fire department arrived, nothing could be salvaged.
The company was in the middle of construction. The pilot plant was being retrofitted with its latest electrocoagulation (EC) technology. After 18 years of research and development, NaturalShrimp was getting ready to commercially scale its proprietary RAS but the fire rendered those plans to ash. At least, for a short while.
Fast forward a year later and the LaCoste facility was rebuilt bigger and better than before. The brand new fish tanks were restocked with postlarvae shrimp this February as the staff get ready for its commercial production this year.
The company has also made strides to expand. Last December, it acquired a 270,000-sq.-ft. facility in Iowa which is now also being stocked with shrimp. As the company now prepares to acquire Hydrenesis, it was announced in January that a new Florida facility will be built that combines both companies’ proprietary technologies. Untermeyer also hints further plans to look at more opportunities in California, Georgia and Puerto Rico.
Untermeyer connected with RAStech to reflect on NaturalShrimp’s whirlwind year and what the company has learned from the experience.
RAStech: Take us back to the night of the fire. Where were you when it happened?
Untermeyer: I actually live in San Antonio. It happened about midnight. I just got a call from our guy that lives on site. He was asleep when his dog started barking and so he got up to look out the window. He saw a glow from the building and by time he got down there in 15 minutes, it had already taken up most of the building. Luckily, no one was in the building at the time and no one got hurt. It happened pretty fast. There really wasn’t any time to put it out.
When I got there the next morning, it was basically totally destroyed. It was a 30,000-sq.-ft. building and the roof had collapsed. And it was pretty obvious everything inside was destroyed, the tanks melted and the equipment we had in there was destroyed.
Fire investigators came in to search it. They went through the remnants and they kept coming back saying (the cause of the fire) was inconclusive. We even hired our own investigator to come in and he came up with the same conclusion. It was basically too intense of a fire to be able to pinpoint the cause.
RAStech: What was it like to deal with the aftermath?
Untermeyer: Yeah, it’s shocking. It takes a couple days. Like a car accident or something, it’s a shock to your system. We all put a lot of time and energy into that one building. We were getting ready for production, actually. We had stock and shrimp in there and they were growing. So I guess, at first, it was disheartening.
I spoke to Gerald Easterling (president and CEO) that day and I wasn’t sure how he was gonna react. But I was really happy. He said, “Well, just know that we have insurance on the buildings so we can go on and regroup.” So, he didn’t hesitate.
At the beginning, people, our employees, were wondering what’s going to happen to them. We held on to a couple people and we had to let some of our technicians go because there was basically nothing to do at that point. We actually are starting to bring some people back now and it’s good to see them back.
RAStech: When you were first renovating the old building, you had to make a lot of accommodations for the existing infrastructure. So maybe in a way, was this fire a blessing in disguise?
Untermeyer: That’s right, yeah. I personally like it because it was the chance to start with a clean slate and say, with everything we know now, what would we want it look like? The new building is a 40,000-sq.-ft. building with 16-ft. walls on the sides.
That was one of the problems with the other building, it wasn’t as tall inside and we wanted to go with taller tanks to get more production per square foot. And that’s something no one else is doing. But our technology allows us to do that.
RAStech: NaturalShrimp makes its name from its patented EC water quality technology. Can you describe what it is and how it sets you apart?
Untermeyer: The problem has always been, in a recirculating system, how do you keep the water quality like it should be? Because the traditional methods of using a biofilter takes several passes through for the bacteria to break the ammonia down, which is the main culprit for recycling systems, the ammonia builds up, caused by the feeding, and then it gets to a level where the shrimp starts suffering.
The EC technology, the way it works is, as the water from the tank flows through the EC device, it removes chlorine from the saltwater. The chlorine combines with the ammonia, and those chloramines get taken downstream by the carbon filter before it returns back to the tank. So basically, you have the EC pump and carbon, and that’s the whole filtration method.
You’re removing the ammonia before it breaks down to nitrite or nitrate so you don’t have any buildup of those chemicals. And then you’re also removing 100 per cent of the ammonia as it passes through each time. You don’t have to pass it through multiple times and your flow rate can be a lot lower. That affects your electricity and everything else. It also destroys any viruses or bacteria that pass through the chamber. And so, you’re keeping the bacteria in the shrimp tank at a very low level. So for all these reasons, it works really well and it’s something that no one else has used before in aquaculture.
RAStech: Now that the pilot plant is up and running again, the company can start looking ahead. In company statements CEO Gerald Easterling signs off with the company’s new mantra: “SHMP (the company’s stock symbol) will rise again from the ashes even stronger.” Do you stand by that?
Untermeyer: (Laughs) Oh, yes, definitely. That’s part of his not hesitating to keep going with this. We started the company back in 2001 with a 200-gallon tank in my basement, and we grew shrimp in my basement. That was 20 years ago and we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, trying all different filtration methods.
Back in 2020, our plan back then was to get into full production by the end of the year. And then it all changed. And now, we’re at the same time and looking back, it’s actually sped things up. We’re moving to other locations now with a design that’s improved.