The Sky is the Limit at SKY8

The Sky is the Limit at SKY8

Photographs by Adam Detour / Styling by Catrine Kelty

James Tran, the president and founder of Sky8 Shrimp Farm confidently mounts the stepladder propped up next to the 12-foot wide, 6-foot high water tank. Tran is holding a net with a long pole—the mega-version of the kind you might use to scoop out the debris from your child’s aquarium. With a swish or two, Tran triumphantly holds the net aloft. The net is jumping and bulging. Full of wriggling fresh shrimp. So translucent that they look like silver pinky fingers.

They are pioneers, these 30,000 silvery wriggling shrimp. They are the first generation of Pacific White shrimp grown in Massachusetts. Arriving as larvae in late November of 2012, the shrimp have spent the last six months maturing to size in huge fiberglass tanks filled with bracing Atlantic Ocean water purified by a high tech filtration system. The warehouse is empty—save for the tanks, the pumps, and 20-foot long industrial plastic drapes that protect the tank area. Bare, unfinished space. The shrimp don’t seem to mind the lack of entertainment and amenities. They are fed, the water is pumped, filtered, cleaned, and re-circulated, and the patient wait begins for the shrimp to grow to restaurant-quality size.

Once the team figures out all the kinks, the expectation is that each successive generation of shrimp will go from larvae to scampi inside of four months. The hope is for this “farm” to ultimately produce 5,000-6,000 good-sized shrimp per week once the operation hits its stride. The goal: a dependable, delicious, affordable resource for fine-dining chefs and others who will prize a fresh, sustainable and local form of the world’s favorite seafood. This one-story fake brick warehouse in a light industrial park in Stoughton, miles from the ocean, seems an unlikely place to witness the birth of a brand new industry. But here we are.

A native of Viet Nam, 38 year-old Tran grew up in a family shrimp business in a country where shrimp farming is a billion dollar export industry. Shrimp is the world’s most popular seafood and more than 80% of all the shrimp sold comes from Asia, with China, Thailand and Viet Nam having the major market shares. Tran didn’t plan to follow in the family path when he arrived in the United States. He qualified for a degree as an Integrated Circuit engineer and went to work as a practicing professional. But Tran had the entrepreneurial itch. “I like engineering. But I thought I had it in me to start a business,” Tran says. Given his familiarity with shrimp farming, he found it strange that a coastal region like New England didn’t have a single one shrimp farm. “I saw that Massachusetts had lots of aquaculture enterprises—fin fish and shellfish but nothing for shrimp. I thought the potential was huge.” Tran began exploring American shrimp farming operations. He did careful research, locating potential business models in places far from the sea like Indiana and Las Vegas. He hired a shrimp consultant from the Netherlands and started experimenting with tropical fish in an aquarium at home.

Shrimp_Man
Shrimp_Man

The closest model Tran found was a successful shrimp company in Indiana that farmed shrimp in fresh water and added in a product called Instant Ocean. Instant Ocean isn’t a bad thing. It’s a combination of salt and algae that reasonably mimics the salinity of the natural ocean. Most of the lobster tanks you’ve ever seen keep their lobsters fresh and happy with a few parts per thousand of Instant Ocean. But Tran had an idea that if he could adapt the Indiana set-up to accommodate natural ocean water, the shrimp’s flavor would vastly improve.  “I tasted the shrimp in Indiana, and I thought, ‘this tastes like nothing,” he says. He felt that there was a market for shrimp that would never be frozen, be locally farm-raised, and would grow to maturity in natural clean ocean water. Sky8 Shrimp farm was born. Why Sky8? Eight is a lucky number in Chinese, Tran says. And the sky is the limit, he hopes.

Tran hunkered down and wrote a compelling business plan. Tone Lovan, a fellow native of Viet Nam signed on as well. “When I came on board, there was nothing. No building. No shrimp. Nothing. But for more than a century shrimp have been imported from Asia for the American market. I thought the opportunity was huge, so I joined up,” says Lovan. He now manages the day-to-day of the farm, seeing to the well being of the shrimp almost hourly.

Tran raised an initial investment pool of $200,000, putting his own money at risk and inviting in family and friends. He leased a 7,200 square foot space in Stoughton. Everyone understood that however sky high the market opportunity was, Massachusetts’ first shrimp farm would be operating in uncharted waters. The concept was so novel that the Aquaculture department of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries didn’t even have a licensing or permitting process that covered crustaceans. All documents and procedures were oriented to fin fish and shellfish. Tran knew he needed a guide, an experienced professional who knew the ropes.

Enter Peter Howard, a compact, crusty, and slightly cranky veteran of the seafood world. In four decades on the sea, Howard had done it all. Fished from his own boat, managed fleets, bought fleets and flipped fleets, and along the way, built a successful consulting practice in the local fishing industry. Atlantic Ocean water runs through Howard’s veins. “Jimmy thought it was going to be easy to get the permit,” Howard says, readjusting his wind-and-salt-weathered baseball cap. “He thought it would take like 60 days. I knew better. All the emphasis in Aquaculture was on oysters.”

Howard made his first visit to the Massachusetts Department of Fishing and Wildlife. He found the agency supportive and everyone liked the idea of a fresh shrimp farm in New England but the weeks and months were dragging on and nothing was getting done. Plus, Sky8 was burning through money. Frustrated, Howard called the Fisheries department, “We’re paying rent on this warehouse and no one is giving us any money. We need some help! We need our permits!” Howard had become a believer in the Sky8 project and once his consulting fee ran out, he traded his expertise for a small equity share of the business.

By late fall 2012, the permits came through. The warehouse was outfitted with the massive fiberglass tanks that would house the shrimp, the water pumps, heating and filtration equipment were installed, the testing lab set up, and a bank of computers ready to whir. They were ready to go. Fresh seawater was trucked in from Maine, filtered with 25-micron mesh to remove any particulates. And at the end of November, the shrimp arrived: 1⁄4-inch tiny wriggly larvae, slightly spermatozoic, flown in from a hatchery in Islamorada, Florida.

It wasn’t an instant success. The shrimp didn’t grow as fast or as big as the projections suggested. At first the water current was flowing too fast and the shrimp couldn’t find the food. They slowed the current in the tank. Still, the fish weren’t growing as fast as they’d hoped. “I thought a little harder and realized that the shrimp weren’t eating because we kept the fluorescent lights on all the time. Duh! Crustaceans feed in the dark! So, we took the tubes out of the fixtures so the shrimp could feed in the darkness,” Howard’s tone is somewhere between ruefulness and bemusement. “The learning curve is steep and has taken longer than we thought.” Originally, Sky8 hoped to begin direct sales to chefs in April 2013. That’s been delayed a few months to give the shrimp time to grow to a size favored by fine-dining chefs and their customers.

The shrimp were ready for a first “tasting” in early April. Sky8 invited a group of high profile local chefs and restaurant owners to visit and on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the first group happily trooped out to Stoughton to see Massachusetts’ first shrimp farm in action. Chefs from restaurants including Mistral, Teatro, the Scarlet Oak Tavern, and Ashmont Grill crowded around as Tran and his team netted out live shrimp. When several shrimp took somersaults out of the net, bouncing off the floor, the chefs took a step back. “Wow, they really are fresh,” said an astonished Nuno Alves, chef of Ashmont Grill. “Who’s ever seen that? Who knew shrimp could jump?” The chefs marveled over the color of the fresh shrimp, clear as water when alive, a slight blue tinge on ice. Chefs left with small packets of live shrimp, on ice, ready for experimentation back at home.

Shrimp_Cooked
Shrimp_Cooked

The chefs were impressed. We talked to Chef Chris Chung later, back in his kitchen at AKA Bistro in Lincoln. He raved. “The texture is special. Crunchy! Firmer, better bite! You can’t get that in frozen shrimp. The taste is briny, very fresh. Like the shrimp I grew up eating in Asia,” he raved. As soon as the Sky8 supply is ready, Chung says he will buy them and serve them as a special. “Until I am very sure of the supply, I won’t put the shrimp on my regular menu yet, but I will serve it as an appetizer or a special.” The chefs had a lot of questions for the shrimp farmers. What do the shrimp eat? How fast do they grow? But mostly, they were curious about price.

What is most appealing about Sky8 is the idea that fresh shrimp can be delivered within hours to kitchens from Boston to New York straight from the tank, free from preservatives, never frozen and without nasty chemical feeds, ingredients or unsafe business practices to worry about. It’s a product that chefs can feel good about, fully sustainable and environmentally friendly in every way. The heat pumps that power the tank pumps provide all the heating and cooling for the warehouse. The whole operation has close to a zero carbon-footprint. “There is zero impact on the environment,” Howard says. That’s all great news for a new sustainable food source. But can Sky8 make money to sustain itself?

The Sky8 team believes that once the farm is operating at full capacity—at an average yearly rate of 60,000 pounds of shrimp a year it can produce a revenue stream of over $1 million a year. To get there Sky8 needs to raise an additional $300,000 to $500,000 in additional capital for plant expansion. Even at full capacity, the shrimp must sell at a premium; they can’t compete with an all-you-can-eat sized bag of frozen shrimp that sells at a warehouse store for $25.00. Howard’s target price is between $15 to $20 dollars a pound. That’s in an acceptable range for most high-quality shrimp, but out of the range for some purchasers, even for chefs like Chris Douglass, owner of Ashmont Grill. Douglass says he was impressed with the shrimp and will buy some when the crop is ready for purchase. “But at the end of the day, price matters. Even at a restaurant like mine that puts an emphasis on local and sustainable product, I can’t pay more than I can charge. The shrimp has to hit at the right price point.”

Partner Peter Howard says that’s just fine with him. “Our shrimp isn’t for everyone. We can’t compete with prices of frozen shrimp that come in from Asia. On the other hand, their shrimp, treated with anti-fungals and things that have names like Malachite Green, can’t compete with ours. Our shrimp are totally clean—we purify and control the water and the feed. No worries for the consumer about any environmental conditions like oil spills,” says Howard. “Our shrimp live in a virtual shrimp spa.”

Is Sky8 the bell weather of a whole new Aquaculture industry in Massachusetts? Will we see a spike in shrimp farming? Sean Bowen, the Aquaculture Specialist for Massachusetts is optimistic. “I like what Sky8 is doing, growing shrimp sustainably and with respect for the food. It passes all my litmus tests for sustainable food!” Bowen anticipates that if that Sky8 is successful there will be room for more shrimp farms, possibly situated right on the coast, next to the ocean in towns like New Bedford. He doesn’t suggest that Massachusetts farmed shrimp can or should compete as a commodity with the massive production facilities overseas. He sees the shrimp as a boutique industry in the making. “We aren’t going to compete with Viet Nam. We can’t have unrealistic expectations. But Massachusetts is in an excellent position to grow a sizeable aquaculture industry, including shrimp.”

Bowen’s analogy is to the local oyster industry. “30 or 40 years ago oysters came from Louisiana, and were sold for $25 or $30 for a bushel. Look at our Massachusetts oysters today—a bushel costs more like $300. Our oysters are a high-end product, a luxury product, ” Bowen says. “Shrimp can be like that. We can’t start out with unrealistic expectations, but slow and steady will win the race.”

James Tran, the visionary founder of Sky8 isn’t in the slow and steady camp; ever the classic entrepreneur, he says, “Our shrimp is the Maserati of shrimp! The sky is the limit for Sky8!”

 

Louisa Kasdon is the author of more than 500 published articles about food, restaurants, health, and business. She was the food editor for the Boston Phoenix/Stuff Magazine and a regular contributor to ZesterDaily.com. She is the founder/CEO of Let’s Talk About Food, letstalkaboutfood.com, an events-based organization that brings the public together around issues in our food system. She can be reached at Louisa@letstalkaboutfood.com.