Desert Dream

Times Staff Writer

A pair of live shrimp were kicking and jumping about the kitchen counter when Steve Serfling quickly left the room muttering, "I can't cook a shrimp I've raised."

Moments later, a pot of boiling water had steamed the crustaceans to a delicate pink color, and the firm-textured, supremely fresh morsels were savored and consumed.

Then Serfling returned to the spacious mobile home's dining area and talked about his dream of an inland sea farm. He was no longer remorseful over the demise of the shrimps, which he had raised from a barely measurable length to bite size.

He said that in a year, if investments fall into place, a veritable fish factory incorporating his company's research could profitably produce 20,000 pounds of high-quality shrimp per acre on this rock-strewn plateau of the high desert.

The concept is more substantial than fantastic. Aquaculture, or fish farming, has made significant strides in reliably growing fish without weather, migratory patterns or pollution factors that regularly affect ocean and freshwater supplies. Today, virtually all catfish and trout consumed in the United States is grown on commercial mainland farms.

Nevertheless, there are limits to the viability of this technology, which has a history dating back to ancient Egypt. Prized top-dollar shellfish such as lobsters, crabs and shrimp have not as readily adapted to domestication. Of the three, the most success has been attained with shrimp, and about 5% of the world's total production now comes from commercial farms.

One recent survey projected an explosion in shrimp farms worldwide in the years before 1990. By the turn of the decade, it is estimated that these operations will produce 525 million pounds of shrimp annually, or 18% of the world's total. In fact, some analysts see farms eventually displacing fishing boats as the major source of this crustacean.

Most such efforts are located in the coastal areas of underdeveloped countries such as Ecuador, Indonesia and Panama, where labor is inexpensive and environmental standards are lax.

Shrimp farming in this country has been limited. The most technologically innovative is a $10-million Hawaiian venture on Oahu's North Shore, which recently harvested and sold its first crop after years of preliminaries.

An additional 10 shrimp farms are in various stages of development on the U.S. mainland. These efforts cover about 1,500 acres, and in 1984 produced 307,000 pounds of shrimp, according to Aquaculture Digest, a monthly publication that monitors the industry.

Yet, imagining shimmering ponds alive with thriving shellfish is not easily done here. This area, about 85 miles southeast of Los Angeles, is known mostly for retirement communities.

Serfling's Solar Aquafarms lies a mile or so down a dusty dirt road with water nowhere in sight. One of the neighboring plots is set off by what may have once been a home, but is now an abandoned wood structure with a corrugated tin roof, sheets of which rise and fall with the wind.

These initial impressions are deceiving because beyond the mobile home are the foundations of a futuristic fish farm. Several long, dome-shaped green houses lie parallel to one another pointing toward the distant, barren desert foothills. Inside these polyethylene-covered, solar-heated humidity factories is an abundance of life, mostly in the form of food-grade algae, submerged in shallow, circulating pools.

"California could produce more seafood inland than (anyone) could possibly farm off the (state's) coast," said Serfling, a persuasive man who maintains a substantial energy level despite the debilitating summer heat. "Eventually, more (could be grown inland) than even could be caught off the coast."

The $3.5-million facility has been taking shape at the present site for two years. This location was selected after eight years of research in the San Diego area and was chosen despite what would appear to be the drawbacks of the high desert.

"There's bad water in the ground here according to the local farmers, but their bad water is great for us," he said.

The ground water in this part of Riverside County is decidedly mineralized and saline. Farmers need to reduce the salt content in order to successfully irrigate crops. Yet, with only a small amount of manipulation, Solar Aquafarms can alter the local supply to be the exact type of brackishness found in the bays and estuaries readily inhabited by shrimp and fish.

Having found a compatible water source for fish farming, Serfling and his associates went about creating a totally self-sufficient system that provides everything from the food the fish eat to the reed grass plants capable of recycling important nutrients within the ponds. Another unique feature is that the system recycles its water instead of continuously flushing the ponds with fresh water.

The one thing the company's aquaculturists could not create is the money to fund the needed expansion of the inland sea farm concept. The capital shortage has delayed construction beyond the two acres of domed ponds that the company now operates.

"No one wants to believe that we can raise shrimp on agricultural land," he said. "We have proved it repeatedly over the last several years, but our problem is that no one wants to believe it."

Most important, Serfling's skeptics doubt he can breed and raise shrimp in a closed system, or one operating without large infusions of fresh water that would drain sediment and bacteria.

"People have been trying to grow fish and shellfish in closed systems for decades, and no one has been able to do it profitably that I know of," said Bob Rosenberry, Aquaculture Digest publisher. "You can't get the entire system to work out. They are expensive to build, can run into disease problems and, generally, are of such small scale that they don't achieve the economy of scale."

Rosenberry pointed out that successful aquaculture operations throughout the world rely on a constant supply of fresh water.

"No one has cultured fish for human consumption in a closed system profitably. Everyone has to be skeptical under conditions like that," Rosenberry said.

Serfling counters the criticism by saying his firm has raised baby shrimp to marketable adult sizes three times in a small-scale test situation. He also states that a Texas firm has raised four generations of one particular shrimp species in a farm system.

Another seeming credibility problem for Solar Aquafarms is the projected production figures. Serfling said it would take his company five months to grow the popular shellfish to market size, a believable schedule. Nevertheless, the troublesome aspect is the number of shellfish he claims to be able to bring to market.

"We can grow 20,000 pounds of heads-on, large shrimp per acre annually. For instance, on 100 acres we could produce 2 million pounds of shrimp. The shrimp could then be sold wholesale at about $6 a pound for a total of $12 million in sales. Our costs for this crop would be $2 million. So, there's a profit of $10 million (for one year).

"These numbers are too good to be true and people just don't believe them," he said. "We don't apologize for them. That's how they come out."

For now, activity on the company's plot of 11 acres remains static. The 14 employees tend to the extensive production facilities devoted to growing spirulina, a blue-green algae prized in the health food trade for its alleged nutritional qualities. Solar Aquafarms sells the spirulina for the human food market and uses it as the primary food for the company's fish pond and tanks.

The closest Solar Aquafarms gets to being a viable aquaculture operation is the half-acre aquacell, or greenhouse, where 2,000 hybrid striped bass are being raised. This is the prototype structure for future expansion into shrimp and, possibly, sturgeon or talapia.

Under the polyethylene dome, two extended shallow pools are adjacent to one another. The water is kept circulating to enhance cleanliness and to further simulate a natural environment. The water temperature remains within certain levels because extreme heat or cold can be disastrous for the fish or shrimp. Serfling's associates have developed a temperature-controlled lining for the ponds, which prevents dramatic climactic variations.

For now, the company keeps several hundred shrimp on hand in plastic-lined redwood tanks. A shrimp hatchery is in the works, and the construction of more ponds where the shrimp can be raised to market size will follow. This expansion is likely to continue, but at a slow pace.

"We're not fund-raisers. We're technical people and aquaculturists," Serfling said, frustrated by delays in his inland sea farm dream. "If we don't receive the necessary funding, then we could support ourselves by growing spirulina. I guess we could just expand our spirulina operation and be profitable with that. . . ."

Somehow, the thought of discarding 10 years of research aimed at changing the nature of the seafood market in favor of blue-green algae did not set well with Serfling. He quickly changed the subject to solving a toxic waste problem in India.

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