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April 28, 1997 

Manatee shrimp farm proposed

The developer is hoping for the state's help

Carole Clancy Staff Writer

A Pinellas County entrepreneur is hatching plans to build a 500-acre commercial shrimp farm in Manatee County, a project that would be the first of its kind in Florida. 

As proposed, the shrimp farm would consist of a hatchery, ponds and a processing plant, all on the premises. Most of the shrimp would be raised for consumption, but some live bait would be produced during times of the year when bait is hard to come by. 

The cost of the project, which is planned in stages, is estimated to be about $16.5 million during its first three years. While the developers say they are seeking to raise most of the money through conventional financing, they are also seeking to tap into state grants and economic incentives such as those provided through Enterprise Florida. 

The venture, called Florida International Shrimp Harvesters, is headed by Charles C. "C.C." Rice II, whose family has owned and operated seafood businesses and restaurants in the beach community of Treasure Island and elsewhere in Pinellas County for years. 

Starting in the mid-1960s, Rice, working with his father, managed a family-owned shrimp farm in Honduras called Honduras Seafood Co., which exported shrimp to the United States and other places. In 1978, the company was sold to a division of Red Lobster Corp. 

Rice's new shrimp farm would sit on land that is now owned by several different parties, including the Port of Manatee, TECO and a private landowner. Rice and an associate, Tom Powell, have met with representatives of all the owners and are doing due diligence before submitting proposals to lease the land or agreements to purchase the parcels. 

The idea of developing a commercial shrimp farm locally comes at a time when 80 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported from countries like Honduras, Mexico and China. The small domestic market is dominated by commercial shrimpers dragging the waters off Florida, Louisiana and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. 

Cultivated shrimp have become a bigger part of the world's shrimp market in recent years. In 1980, cultivated shrimp represented just 2 percent of the world market. Ten years later, that figure jumped to 35 percent, with 2.5 million acres in cultivation. By the year 2000, it's expected that cultivated shrimp will command 50 percent of the market in the U.S., Japan and Europe. 

Until recently, domestic production of farm-raised shrimp has been stifled by financial and environmental hazards which have kept investors away. 

There are only a few dozen commercial shrimp farms operating in the United States -- there are about 10 shrimp farms in Texas, 10 smaller farms in South Carolina, and several farms in Hawaii. And Florida officials said they didn't know of any commercial fish farms in the state. There is a commercial hatchery in Key West which supplies seed stock to some parts of Central America and there may be one or two small, pilot shrimp programs elsewhere in the state. 

But new technology, which allows more shrimp production per acre and is more environmentally friendly, is changing the climate of the domestic shrimp industry, making shrimp farms more desirable enterprises in the view of both regulators and investors. 

The technology which has spawned that growth is credited in large part to Dr. Addison Lawrence, professor of wildlife and fisheries at Texas A&M University, which is generally considered as the leader among those institutions doing research in this field. 

Lawrence said he has been working with Rice and Powell for some time and has agreed to provide them with the technology, which is available at no cost. 

"If C.C. and Tom would have come to me five years ago to start the project, I would not have recommended it," Lawrence said. "It's only in last couple years that the technology has developed to a level where I think it's worthwhile -- where you can raise shrimp for a profit and at the same time not hurt the environment. What we're trying to create is a sustainable industry." 

Rice and Powell have been knocking on doors locally and in Tallahassee trying to drum up enthusiasm, and money, for their project. 

About a month ago, they met with Labor Secretary Doug Jamerson at his office to discuss whether the project might qualify for some type of state funding. Rice and Powell said they intend to hire some workers in Manatee County who have been displaced since the North America Free Trade Agreement took effect, resulting in a downscaling by some tomato farms in the county. 

A spokeswoman for the Labor department said there are incentives available, but without knowing the specifics of the shrimp farm proposal, she couldn't confirm whether the project would be eligible to receive them. 

Economic development officials in Manatee County said they, too, have been contacted by Rice and Powell about the shrimp farm proposal, but that it's probably too early to provide any real assistance. 

"We're prepared to help companies after they've gotten their financing, but we don't have the knowledge or staff to do start-up," said Nancy Engel, executive director of the Manatee County Economic Development Council. 

Engel said her staff can help expedite the permitting process and bring in technical support training, but that aside from referring people to some sources of grant money for non-operating expenses, "our bag of resources in very limited," she said. 

"You have to find people who are willing to put their money on the line for a higher risk," Engel said. "You can't do it as a community unless you're a much larger community. You need a bigger pot to pull from." 

© 1997, Tampa Bay Business Journal