Meet Buffalo’s first-ever shrimp farmer
A former accountant finds a new career in aquaculture
Photos by kc kratt
Great Lakes Shrimp Company
1500 Clinton Street, Suite 154; Buffalo
Food terminals, which dot the North American landscape, have evolved over the years as the way produce is shipped and sold in our country has changed. The Niagara Frontier Food Terminal on Buffalo’s East Side is among them. It stands on land gifted to the area for just this purpose in 1931 by the Erie and Nickel Plate Railroads. Made of steel and concrete and equipped with shipping docks, these buildings are sturdy and ripe for reuse; their vast spaces are an ideal fit for light production. Today, the Niagara Terminal houses The Sausage Maker, one of the most esteemed retail sellers of meat curation and preservation equipment in the country; and Chateau Buffalo, a cidery, among other businesses. Last fall, it gained a surprising new tenant, the Great Lakes Shrimp Company.
Nigel Hebborn, a former accountant and CFO, has found a way to turn his passion for the sea into a full-time job in the most unlikely way—with the advent of Western New York’s first shrimp farm. Born in Nottingham, England, Hebborn grew up in Clarence. His career began at Price Waterhouse’s Buffalo office, and he spent a decade working in Rhode Island. As a man who loves the ocean and is fascinated with sea life, Hebborn began to investigate the notion of aquaculture about a decade ago. A class at Cornell University armed him with the basics, and an examination of WNY’s seafood access led him to understand holes in the market, holes like this one: Buffalo is 500 miles away from fresh shrimp.
Nigel Hebborn is farming Pacific Whiteleg Shrimp
“That makes frozen shrimp the only option, due to its limited fresh shelf life—unless you are paying to fly them in, which is cost-prohibitive,” Hebborn says. “Shrimp meat is very delicate, and freezing substantially impacts the taste and texture of the meat. A fresh, never-frozen shrimp is a superior product to frozen shrimp.”
Additionally, while Great Lakes Shrimp Company certainly benefits, in theory at least, by its location near an abundance of fresh water, it also employs a highly sustainable closed-loop system, so the water used to create the ideal environment for the shrimp to grow and thrive is filtered and reused time and time again. In fact, boasts Hebborn during one of our meetings, “We’ll be using the same water years from now!” Topping it off to make up for natural evaporation is of course part of the process, but one step inside the terminal’s new shrimp farm, and one can’t help but see the complex series of blue and red lines running overhead between the warm tanks, filtering the water, moving the water, and using very little electric power to do so.
For someone who doesn’t know much about aquaculture, what sets a great facility apart from a not-so-great facility?
Aquaculture is a broad term and encompasses many facilities. These range from coastal grow pens to estuary and lake pens to raceways, natural and manmade ponds, greenhouses, barns, and commercial buildings. The most obvious difference is capacity and leverage of natural resources versus manmade resources. In all cases, the negative impact on byproduct life-forms is virtually zero as compared to the substantial impact produced by naturally farmed shrimp sources. Watch a shrimp boat operation show on TV, and notice the massive byproduct catch that is injured or killed to sort a few pounds of shrimp from a trawling net.
Aquaculture systems leveraging natural resources (lakes, rivers, coastal plains) limit byproduct loss issues, but produce other issues. Principal among them is the release of untreated waste into the environment. Also, the facility is exposed to the elements including birds, bugs, and other wildlife that can introduce diseases into the shrimp environment. Combating this may involve the use of antibiotics or other treatments. Indoor facilities [like Great Lakes Shrimp Company] are more expensive to maintain and produce a lower volume of shrimp but can generally limit environmental exposures and the release of waste into the environment. Great Lakes shrimp is pesticide and antibiotic free, and no waste is released into the environment.
Many chefs and food professionals have been taught to avoid the term “farm-raised” when it comes to fish. I’m wondering how aware you are of those worries and how you address them?
That is likely due to the concerns noted above for outdoor facilities, and possibly from foreign practices of unsafe feed management. Those issues do not apply to indoor aquaculture operations. All methods of raising and catching food have positives and negatives, and the future will need creative solutions to continue to provide for the demands of an ever-growing population.
What species of shrimp are you raising?
Pacific Whiteleg Shrimp, technically Litopenaeus vannamei. The industry has favored this type of shrimp due to it stability in a farming environment and a rapid growth curve. It also tastes great!
Being first to market in Buffalo typically requires extensive consumer education. Did you anticipate that?
Although we are the first with whole fresh shrimp in the Buffalo market, the education has not seemed to be a major issue. Everyone has experience with shrimp to some degree, so it is at least a known food. Our Facebook page has suggestions for handling fresh whole shrimp and options for cooking them.
What is an aspect of your new career you find surprising?
I am not raising shrimp as originally conceived. Instead, the effort and focus is on developing and managing the water environment. The shrimp become a byproduct of the water, and the goal is to maintain a strong water environment that, in turn, becomes better at supporting a shrimp community within it.
Reading this, people may not realize that you are selling live shrimp, which is unusual for landlocked Buffalo, where we typically only see lobsters being sold that way.
I am offering the product to both the retail and wholesale marketplace. So far, it has been a niche product that has received interest from the retail community willing to experiment with whole shrimp, and farm-to-table restaurants with shrimp-experienced chefs. Professional chefs and those with an understanding of shrimp from the southern Gulf states generally understand what they’ll be getting very quickly. My biggest challenge is offering the local community the taste and value difference that a fresh, never-frozen salt water shrimp offers. Most don’t even realize how much better it truly is.