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Desert Dream

August 01, 1985|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

SUN CITY, Calif. — 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.

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