The Shrimps Cluster


an idea on how to convert waste streams from shrimp farms

into a catalyst for socio-economic development




how three decades of biochemistry research in the Baltic

can reverse industrial design errors in the Tropics


written by Gunter PAULI

director ZERI Foundation                                             April 2002




         The ZERI concept reminds us of a simple truth: no one in nature wastes waste. Whatever is waste for one kingdom, is food for another kingdom. The fact there there are five kingdoms offers a multiple of solutions. The lack of understanding of this core law of waste management not only leads to a decrease in productivity, it decreases the resilience of the immune system. Worse, ignoring this factum endangers the health of animals in general and humans in particular. The case of mad cow disease (BSE:Bovine Spongiforme Encephalopathy) amply demonstrates the problem. Since farmers are feeding cows with waste from cows ... cows degenerate up to the point of self-destruction.      


         After the infection of cattle with BSE, years pass on average before clinical symptoms such as the decline in milk production and shaking develop. This incubation time can vary widely from 20 months to more than 15 years. These diseases are transmissible between species and bring about a slow degeneration of the central nervous system, which inevitably leads to death. As a result of this incubation time, products from infected but not visibly ill animals, end up in the human food chain likely causing the incurable Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. More than 10 years elapse between infection of a person and the appearance of the first clinical symptoms.


         The pathogen causing this type of disease, the so-called prion, is a newly discovered type which differs from currently known bacteria and viruses. Prions are extremely resistant to heat and chemicals. Even heating to 100°C cannot inactivate prions adequately and many of the usual disinfectants have hardly any effect at all. Prions are also very difficult to decompose biologically.


Mad cow and crazy shrimps

         Whereas the mad cow diseases has been widely publicized, lead to trade embargos and billions of losses, the same occurs to shrimps. The dramatic situation of shrimp farming received much less media attention even though the devastation is of a similar magnitude, and the social impact much larger since there was no safety net like the one European Union could offer to their farmers and consumers costing the tax payers zillions.


Table 1 : species affected by WSSV


Scientific Name             Common Name               Type of Infection 

Marsupenaeus japonicus             Kuruma shrimp                           cultured, experimentally infected 

Penaeus monodon                       Giant tiger shrimp                       cultured, experimentally infected 

Fenneropenaeus penicillatus        Redtail shrimp                            cultured

Fenneropenaeus chinensis                       Fleshy shrimp                             cultured 

Metapenaeus ensis                     Greasyback shrimp                       cultured, experimentally infected 

Litopenaeus setiferus                  White shrimp                              experimentally infected    

Farfantepenaeus aztecus             Brown shrimp                             experimentally infected    

Farfantepenaeus duorarum                      Pink shrimp                               experimentally infected 

Palaemonidae                            Grass shrimp                              naturally present 

Alpheus brevicristatus                Snapping shrimp                         naturally present

Alpheus lobidens                                    Snapping shrimp                         naturally present 
            Trachypenaeus curvirostris
                      Southern rough shrimp                 experimentally infected 

Macrobrachium rosenbergii         Giant freshwater shrimp                cultured 

Portunus pelagicus                      Sand Crab                                  experimentally infected                

Scylla serrata                            Mud crab                                    cultured, experimentally infected 

Acetes sp.                                 Krill                                          experimentally infected    

Calappa lophos                          Box crab                                    experimentally infected    

Panulirus ornatus           Ornata               spiny lobster                               experimentally infected 

Panulirus longipes                      Longlegged spiny lobster              experimentally infected    

Panulirus versicolor                   Painted spiny lobster                    experimentally infected    

Panulirus penicillatus                 Pronghorn spiny lobster                experimentally infected

Uca pugilator                             Calico fiddler crab                        experimentally infected    


Source :    The University of Southern Mississippi, College of Marine                   Sciences, <>


         A country like Ecuador lost an estimated 500 million US dollar in exports since 1999, after an attack of “la mancha blanca”, a deadly viral epozooic disease, called the white spot syndrome virus or WSSV. Mortalities of shrimps reach 100% within 3 to 10 days of the onset of clinical signs.


         An increase in disinfectants, and a considerable injection of antibiotics proved incapable to control the virus. It is now generally accepted that the problem is not the virus, but rather the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem combined with the degeneration of the immune system of the shrimp. Shrimp farms are notorious for their devastating impact on mangroves. The reason for a debilitated immune system of shrimps is not difficult to guess: waste from on-site shrimp processing representing 40% of the animal’s weight is processed on the spot as shrimp feed. When shrimps are forced to eat their own waste, then it is no surprise that they degenerate. It is a violation of the nature’s law on waste management.


         Now shrimp farms leave behind a trail of antiseptic, antibiotic and disinfectant chemicals. This type of economic development fails to produce the export revenues or the jobs that had been hoped for. Whereas the European Union is keen to block the import of shrimps with traces of antibiotics, it will take years before the overall impact of this popular food on the health of consumers will be known. It takes 10 years for symptons to emerge with BSE, how long does it take before the lingering problems of shrimps, which figure on all menus across Europe and North America can be spotted? Are you ready to order some tiger shrimps next time you are visiting a restaurant?


         Much of the damage is done, and is difficult to reverse. Scientists propose genetically modified shrimps resistant to MSSV. Others propose a widespread use of ultraviolet radiation. Both accept to cultivate shrimps in an artificial environment, incapable of surviving -both ecologically and economically- in natural systems. ZERI is committed to design an innovative system aimed at the recovery of much of the lost ground. The innovative approach to this lies in a combination of proven technologies which -when applied in an open ecosystem- could prove extremely attractive for the regions which had once hoped for shrimps to be their road to development. The goal is to bring socio-economic development while operating in co-evolution with nature.


Chitin and Chitosan

         Shrimps are not only tasty and popular, these animals are the producers of a hard shield to protect their body. This structural material is made out of chitin. This natural material is typical for crustacians such are lobsters, crabs and even krill, the favority meal of whales. From the shell waste, producers can harvest chitin and process it into chitosan to make valuable products for the medical, food, fiber and textile industries.


         Chitin is one of the most abundant organic resources on earth. The 900,000 tons of shrimps produced in 2001 represent 400,000 tons of chitin .... We only have begun to scratch the surface of renewable resources on earth. In North Carolina (USA), the annual harvest of 20,000 tons of crab produces 18,000 tons of waste. Krill, the favority diet of whales are chitin factories, shedding their hard “skin” up to 9 times per year. Considering that the total biomass weight of all krill on earth is equal to the total body weight of humans gives us an idea of the massive production system the oceans are providing.


Table 2 : Sources of Chitin in nature

                Fungi                   5-20%

                  Worms                20-38%

                  Squids/Octopus   3-20%

                  Scorpions            30%

                  Spiders                38%

                  Cockroaches        35%

                  Water Beetle       37%

                  Shrimps              40%

                  Silk Worm           44%

                  Hermit Crab        69%

                  Edible Crab          70%


         Chitosan is the extract from chitin which has wide potential applications. It is a polysacchraride, thus a natural product which has been in existence for millennia, though its current form has just recently been invented. Technically speaking chitosan is a naturally occurring substance that is similar to cellulose, a plant fiber. Chitosan and plant fibers possess many of the same properties. First of all their molecular structure is nearly identical, but from a practical point of view, chitosan like fibers is not digestible, therefore it has no caloric value. Chitosan is hard, insoluble … and yet somehow flexible. Industry has not figured out how to make synthetic polymers that have this neat combination of properties.


         The process of extracting chitosan involves taking the shells of shrimp or crabs, grinding them to a fine powder and then deacetylating this powder. The production of chitosan is limited to a few countries which are the typical processors of crabs: Norway, Canada, Argentina, Chile, the USA and Russia (Siberia). Though crabs are overharvested and in some areas even endangered, their natural growth declines. The farming of crabs leads to a species with a much thinner shell, thus less chitin. As a result of this demand for alternative sources of chitin is rising.


Biodegradable plasters

         The Latvian scientist Imants Kaimins, a doctor in chemistry from Moscow University, and the inventor of many biochemical products, offers a new perspective. Indeed, he designed a system whereby wounds, even burns, are simply covered by an ointment, mainly made from bees wax, and sealed off with a simple sheet of non-bleached paper laminated on both sides with chitosan. The thin film of chitosan makes the paper permeable, though inhibits the release of enzymes from potentially harmful bacteria. It forms a barrier that suppresses undesired cell growth while permitting the natural response of the immune system to proceed. The chitosan layer encourages appropriate growth from the outer edges, and thus reduces scarring.


         This combination of ointment and chitosan covered paper decreases the healing time, by increasing the healing rate, and reduces the pain. This combination has a distinct advantage over other dressings that need to be changed and can be painful to remove. The re-application of dressings is not needed anymore, thus eliminating a major discomfort, especially when dressings attached to healing skin.


         The design of these biodegradable wound plasters is quite revolutionary since it combines high quality stretch paper manufactured in small volumes, and the processing of waste from shrimps. This provides an opening for the development of an alternative income for the shrimp farmers who have all interest to undertake the first purification of the chitin on site. It simply does not make sense to feed next generations of shrimps this waste when such an obvious solution is on hand at a price well above the value of low quality shrimp feed.


Wood and Chitosan Processing Plants

         The Latvian Wood Chemistry Research Centre, which was identified by the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden as one of the outstanding laboratories which emerged from obscurity after the fall of the Berlin wall, has dozens of researchers with hundreds of years of combined experience to design and build such integrated production units. The small scale paper mills, which may not be competitive in the traditional paper market dominated by billion dollar investments, can though operate very competitive in this elastic paper market. Whereas Latvia is contemplating a billion dollar Swedish-Finnish investment of a huge paper mill which could irreversably damage the Daugana river system from where most of the population derives its drinking water, the country has all the necessary know-how to offer another solution.


         Hands-on scientists from the Baltic identified another source of fibre in addition to chitosan which is of little value today, but which could become an attractive alternative source for both raw materials and jobs. The challenge of small diameter wood is well known in the USA. This young biomass which proliferates uncontrolled due to poor forest management is considered the key responsible of forest fires. This small wood has no economic value, on the contrary its removal to reduce forest fire risks is expensive and most of it ends up in landfills.


         Instead of forcing more planting of genetically modified pine or non-native eucalyptus trees, small wood could be used effectively for this high value added bioplaster. This makes particular sense in the USA (Gulf of Mexico) and Southern Europe (the Mediterranean) where forest shrubbs, forest fires and shrimp farms are often located side-by-side. But one can also consider other abundant fiber sources in the tropics which are cheap and readily available: banana leaves, bagasse, coconut fibers. Small paper mills which have been closed down around the world, and not the least in China were some 11,000 had to close their doors to give way to “modernity”, could be given new life. These operations are flexible and profitable especially when one wishes to have a simple procssing system for a combination of the waste from multiple sources.


Better medicare leads to economic development

         Today the dressing of wounds is based on synthetic material, punched with holes and covered on the inside with bleached cotton for which you need scisors and chemical adhesives. Worse, this dressing needs to be changed regularly causing pain and anxiety not to talk about its waste stream that needs to be incinerated in hospitals. Here is an alternative option. Since most of the medical supplies in the developing world or in the economies in transition are imported, the abundant availability of small diameter wood and chitin, which is guaranteed along all coastal zones, permits the substitution of an expensive and unsustainable treatment system with a highly performing, renewable plaster. This is a development which can catalyze local development while maintaining a very flexible approach to health care.


         But the success of this treatment system, which is the most basic, most simple and most needed of medicare, requires another input factor. It requires a derivatives produced by another wonderful member of nature: the bees. Fortunately, the Latvian researchers have abundance of all ingredients: crabs, shrimps, bees and trees.


Bees-based ointment

         The innovation of covering paper with chitosan is only part of the breakthrough, another component of this scientific insight is the elimination of the traditional adhesive. Indeed, plasters require a sticking agent, otherwise the open wound would quickly be exposed leading to dirt and infections.


         Prof. Dr. Imants developed an ointment based on bees’ wax. It is an exceptionally effective cover, which combines natural antiseptic ingredients from the bees’ wax, which enhance the immune system, while allowing the chitosan covered paper to stick comfortably without the need of a chemical adhesive. The procedure is simple: an open wound, a scratch or a burn is covered with this ointment, let to dry for less than a minute creating a pervious thin film, after which the chitosan paper is gently pressed on it. The paper sticks immediately, and remains as long as the patient wishes. In order to remove it, the paper is released without any of the typical stinging pains of hairs which are removed, or without the need for alcohol to release the adhesive. The layer of chitosan which was in direct contact with the wound is released from the paper.


Another wonder from nature: propolis

         The ointment is based on an extract from bees’ wax: propolis. Propolis is a natural product produced by bees with a well-documented history of providing a wide spectrum of health promoting and health restoring benefits. It demonstrated in clinical trials antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. It is one of nature’s greatest gifts along with spirulina algae and ganoderma mushrooms. Propolis is next to royal jelly, pollen and honey one of the great products bees produce that science cannot.


         Propolis is a resinous substance that the bees gather from tree leaves and bark, and combine it with nectar, wax, pollen, and bee bread to make a natural "glue" type substance. This glue is used to seal hive cracks and holes. It is also placed at the entrance to the beehive, where incoming workers have to brush up against it as they enter the hive. This sterilizes the bees from infection, and may disinfect them upon entry as well. Beehives are more sterile than the most modern hospitals. Propolis is also used to line the birthing chamber where the queen lays her eggs, thereby providing a clean, sterile environment for the developing eggs.


         Propolis contains all the known vitamins except for vitamin K. Of all the fourteen minerals the human body requires for normal function, propolis contains all but one, sulfur. It contains a number of unidentifiable compounds that create a perfectly balanced food substance. It also has 16 amino acids that have been identified, and more bioflavanoids (necessary for anti-inflammatory action within the human body) than found in oranges.


         This substance has been used throughout many centuries for its natural antibiotic capabilities. Propolis is still able to effectively combat bacterial strains which have become resistant to modern synthetic antibiotics. The bee is the only insect ever to have been found to be bacteria free, most likely due to the action of the propolis. Propolis has no known side effects. It boosts the immune system while fighting invaders, something prescription antibiotics cannot do. It also has demonstrated a remarkable ability to disable viruses. When prescription antibiotics must be used, propolis has proven to boost the effectiveness of the prescription, while strengthening the body and drastically reducing recovery times. Propolis is given to patients in Russia before and after surgery to aid in healing and prevent infection, and to boost energy levels during the recovery process. It is often mixed with garlic to make a powerful infection fighter, killing viruses and bacterial invaders without harming the beneficial bacteria needed by the body to function properly.


         This wax is recognized by the pharmaceutical community as exceptionally effective. Though to many surprise, propolis is not always active. Some bees’ wax contains inactive propolis to humans. This requires an active research verifying which propolis from which bee living off which flower will offer active ingredients.


A new cluster : medicare, shrimp farms, apiculture, paper/pulp

         The innovation of Prof. Imants is very timely indeed. The medicare is not accessible or too expensive for many, and is often based on mainly imported products. Shrimp farming has been eradicated due to environmental mismangement and the subsequent diseases; paper and pulp requires developing nations to embrace systems which violate the ecosystem (planting GMO or non-native), and finally apiculture (honey production) has suffered major setbacks over the past decade.


         World production of honey has increased to 1.1 million tons in 1998, and the EU being the biggest importer with 134,000 tons , Argentina the world’s leading exporter. There are 300,000 farmers in Brazil who produce some 10 kg per beehive, but the closer to the coast, productivity goes up to 45 kg per beehive along the Colombian Caribbean coast. The prices evolve along the trend of all other major crops: downwards. Whereas the peak reached 1450 dollar per ton in 1997, it is now solidly below 1,000 mark. The smaller farmers, especially in Middle America have been very affected by this price squeeze since their productivity is well below the 10 kg per beehive mark. Research confirms that the large majority of small scale farmers only recover the honey, and leave the other more valuable elements of a beehive without commercialization.


         The apiculture has been characterized by a crisis. Demand for honey has increased but the use of some toxic substances and especially antibiotics have created a major limitation on further expansion of honey as an engine for economic development in the developing world. Consumer confidence, especially in Europe the largest importer had an adverse effect on the situation of many farmers.


         Therefore it is proposed to develop this cluster which permits the joint development of complementary sectors in the economy, integrate the core materials, and offer to the market a quality product which exemplifies the capacity of nature to respond to people’s needs in terms of food, health care, jobs in co-evolution with nature. Who would ever have expected that these wonderful products from nature could flow into an innovative health care component.


         But one key element is missing: the mangroves. A Prof. Carl Hodges has demonstrated in Eritrea, along the Red Sea, it is perfectly possible to replant mangroves, thus reestablishing this fragile ecosystem which stimulates not only a sustainable shrimp farm, and a highly productive apiculture. It will provide the habitat for hundreds of species of birds and plants which had been evicted after years of degradation.


         If we are prepared to learn the best from Ecuador, Latvia and Eritrea we come to a fascinating new vision on how to embard on sustainable devopment, better even we learn how to undo the errors of the past by creating a marvellous basis for co-evolution with nature.



Table 3: the ZERI cluster of bees, trees and shrimps





honey                                                           shrimps




                                    Mangrove Forest               Shrimp Farms





                                                                        chitin / chitosan


                                    Innovation in

                                    Health Care

                                                                        stretch paper




                           Responding to Local Needs

                                                                                 Small Dia Wood






This article is written on the basis of the research findings from scientists in both Latin America and Europe. Desk research and laboraty tests provided the first insights in how the system could be designed after field visits in both regions permitted to seize both the size of the problems as well as the breadth of the opportunities. The first visit to Riga, Latvia was in 1995. The first discussion on shrimp farms in the scientific network started in 1997. It is believed that the present status of affairs permits the implementation of all elements described.



Gunter Pauli (1956) is a system designer. Thanks to the creation of a network of hands-on scientists in 1994, Gunter secures that problems are converted to solutions by putting technological innovations. This is part of a major effort to respond to the pressing needs of people for water, food, housing, health care, jobs and education. He is the author of 12 books, and the creator of 36 fairy tales which are translated in over 100 languages.