SYDNEY – Somewhere in the vast fishing waters off Australia’s northern coast, the hunt is on for the Adams and Eves needed to start a super race of shrimp.
The chosen few will be key to the success of a $1.5 billion plan by Seafarms Group Ltd. to build the largest shrimp farm in the developed world. The biggest challenge isn’t digging the 1,000 ponds on a site almost as big as Disney World in Florida, or transporting the shrimp from one of Australia’s remotest regions to markets in Asia.
Project Sea Dragon’s viability rests on creating in a laboratory in a few years what centuries of natural evolution hasn’t achieved. Scientists are attempting to unlock the genome of the Black Tiger prawn to make a super invertebrate that will grow faster, fight disease more effectively and taste better than its free-roaming brethren.
“It’s supercharging natural selection,” said Dean Jerry, the professor at James Cook University in Townsville, north Queensland, who leads a team working on the project with funds from Seafarms and the Australian government. “What we’re really trying to breed for ultimately is a prawn which grows as fast as it can.”
Project Sea Dragon, which is looking for funding from foreign investors, is also a test of Australia’s ability to emerge from a once-in-a-century mining boom and provide more food to growing populations in Asia. Food produced by aquaculture must double by 2030 to meet global demand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“We’ve got a real challenge globally to feed the world,” Seafarms director Chris Mitchell said in an interview. “Humans have done this with chickens, they’ve done it with cows, they’ve done it with sheep. It’s not that this is some kind of magic. It’s just very good scientific principles rigorously applied.”
The animal’s reproductive skills match the scale of the project — which when fully built will rank as the world’s seventh-biggest producer. A female Black Tiger prawn produces as many as 400,000 offspring in a single spawn, giving picky scientists a wide range of candidates to advance to the next generation.
Farmed fish and crustaceans are notoriously fragile. About 40 percent globally are lost to disease before they can be eaten, according to Jerry. In some parts of Asia, entire populations of farmed shrimp have been killed off.
Mitchell’s goal is to breed such hardy and tasty prawns that the project will never have to catch wild ones again.
More than two dozen scientists stretched from Melbourne in Australia’s south to Townsville, 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) to its north, are two years into the task.
Next year, they plan to produce a first draft genome for the Black Tiger prawn. That’s a biological recipe 10 times more complex than the human genome, according to Jerry.”It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “Knowing whether you’ve got the pieces of the puzzle in the right places is the difficult part.”
The next step is to match the genetic information to the physical traits desired in the prawn — the name used interchangeably with shrimp in Australia. Seafarms has a long list of demands.
A fast-growing prawn is the priority, but it also needs to contain unusually high levels of omega 3 fat and turn an attractive tone of pink when cooked. The final product will be antibiotic-free, might be bigger than a man’s fist and weigh 50 grams — several times more than a standard frozen shrimp.
Seafarms, which has a market value in Sydney of A$105 million ($78 million), may sell a stake in the project or itself to fund the development. Potential investors are from China, Korea, Japan, Europe and the U.S., Mitchell said. Shares in Seafarms climbed as much as 1.1 percent in Sydney on Thursday before trading steady at 9.5 cents. The stock has gained 36 percent this year.
The first offspring from the project could be ready for sale at the end of 2018, and the site is targeting full output of 162,000 tons of prawns a year. That’s more than four times Australia’s current annual prawn consumption.
The prawns will grow on a 10,000-hectare (25,000-acre) slice of the Legune cattle ranch, near the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. There’s also a hatchery near Darwin, and more than 2,000 kilometers to the west, a quarantine station for the founding families.
“We’re aiming to bring the first cohort in this month,” Mitchell said. “Mummy and daddy prawns, if you like.”
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