After speaking with Oscar Hennig, the Operations Director of Benchmark Genetics Shrimp, it is inevitable to think of the word 'Aloha.' Used as a greeting, Aloha means 'hello' and 'goodbye,' but they say that, if we refer to its literal translation, 'Alo' means 'presence' and 'Ha' means 'breath,' so 'the presence of breath or 'breath of life'. And it was just that, a breath of life, what Hawaii meant for this Brazilian who arrived on the island of Hawaii in the late '90s following his passion for marine shrimp aquaculture.
Hawaii is now his home, and he often travels around the world. He does so, especially to Benchmark Genetics' production facilities in Florida and its nucleus breeding center in Colombia and Asia, where many of his clients are. The island is in the middle of the road – "not a bad place", he jokes – but it is much more. Jim Wyban, the founder of High Health Aquaculture Inc., said in this interesting article in Hawaii Business Magazine back in 2014 that Hawaii deserves the title of the World's Shrimp-Breeding Capital.
At least, that's how it is for shrimp and Oscar Hennig. Originally from Brazil, he did his Oceanography Course at the Rio Janeiro State University. From the beginning, he knew he would like to stay in physics or biology. An internship in physical oceanography on an oil platform confirmed which would be the definitive one. "I saw early on that I did not like working on the oil company. So, I started looking into the biological oceanography, and, since I like more practical production, I started looking into aquaculture".
He searched for and found an internship on a shrimp farm and then at a shrimp hatchery in Australia. "Spent four months there, three on the farm and one on the hatchery. And I loved it. I liked it quite a lot. That's how I got started in aquaculture". Although it didn't seem like it at the time, that was also the beginning of his journey to Hawaii.
Back in Brazil, after the internship in Australia, he did his master's degree in aquaculture, then spent two years in Japan, working with and studying shrimp immunology and shrimp disease. While in Japan, his professor offered him to attend a short course on shrimp diseases held annually at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "That was 1997, and on my way to Arizona, I revisited Hawaii, but this time I was looking into a possible job opportunity. It was always a place I knew I liked and had a growing aquaculture industry", he tells us.
"The Oceanic Institute was the first one in the 1980s that started the shrimp breeding program for Penaeus vannamei, and I was interested in working for the Oceanic Institute", he continues. "Long story short, when I concluded my studies in Japan, I sent my resume to everyone, including the Oceanic Institute. Later, while working in the Ceara University Research Lab and leasing a shrimp farm with partners, I got hired to manage a facility Oceanic Institute used to have here, on the Big Island, in 1999". Oscar had found his home.
They say those who persevere succeed, but it is also honest to recognize when fortune smiles on you. "One thing that happened during my career that I was pretty lucky was that, at the beginning of the early 2000s, the main shrimp species farmed in the world was the Black Tiger. But it was quite a problem because there was no breeding program for Black Tiger then. They would still go into the wild and collect mature and mated females to spawn. So, every time they would bring those animals into their maturation, it was a question mark of how they would perform and if they would bring any diseases".
When you bring something from the wild, you don't know, and the uncertainty doesn't match well with farming. So, in the early 2000s, Asian farmers started trying the white shrimp, the vannamei, which is native to the Pacific Coast of the Americas, and they liked it. The production of vannamei exploded in Asia because there was already a couple of breeding programs for this species, Oceanic Institute being one of them. "In a way, jobs and opportunities in that area in the early 2000s were available".
Traditionally in Hawaii, the shrimp broodstock industry does not use genetic modification but selective breeding, and this is also the case at Benchmark Genetics under the operational management of Oscar Hennig. "Shrimp farming is not homogeneous, meaning the way you farm shrimp goes from extensive ponds to super high intensive ponds or tanks. It goes from no disease presence with quite high pressure of disease. It goes from full strain salinity, so the saltwater in the pond is the same as the seawater, to almost fresh water", Oscar explains.
"Shrimp is quite adaptable to those different conditions, especially vannamei, so we have been selecting for those different conditions, for those different environments. And we can do this because our genetic pool, the genetic variability in our breeding program, is second to none", he concludes.
By picking and choosing to select, they adapt to the needs of their customers but also help two other no less important issues: predictability on the production and animal welfare. Diseases continue to be the main problem in shrimp farming, so by selecting for disease resistance and robustness of the lines, they are able not only to maintain production stability but also, in terms of animal welfare, to ensure that the animals survive in the environment. "The farmer knows what he can count on at the end of the day", he claims.
When it comes to animal welfare, there is another point where Benchmark Genetics makes a difference. Since acquiring the shrimp breeding program in 2016 – the year Oscar started to work for Benchmark – female eye stock ablation stopped. This practice causes females to produce more eggs and is common in shrimp farming. Its elimination is costing the company extra effort in 'customer education'. Still, in different parts, the industry "started to notice that the PLs that come out of a non-ablated female are more robust", says Oscar.
According to him, that makes sense because the eggs of the non-ablated females are bigger and have more nutrition inside. "It's like taking care of your baby from the beginning with good food. And so, it will become a more robust adult", he explains. In the end, the client decides on ablation or not; "we plant the seed on animal welfare and tell them that we'll be there for them whenever they are ready to start". Being there for the customer is another priority for Benchmark.
"We want to develop different lines for different needs; we need to be there with the client to understand their needs and what would be advantageous for them today and in the future". That's why, in countries where they have a significant presence, in addition to a salesperson, they have a technical representative. This person works hand in hand with the customer, goes to the farms, and helps them reach the line's full genetic potential. "I like to say genetics is one wing; how you farmed the animal is your other wing, so you have to be in synchrony with your genetics", the Operations Director of Benchmark Genetics Shrimp claims.
That's the company's philosophy with their clients and, in part, also inside Benchmark Genetics. "It's a fantastic company to work for", Oscar states, "quite impressed with everything, the professionalism and the way we work together", he continues. Coming from Brazil, having lived in Australia and Japan, and calling home a diverse place such as Hawaii, for him, it's a blessing to be able to go and see other countries and cultures and understand how different people go by on a day-to-day basis. "That's something that I enjoy at work", he confesses. And adds, "from all the people I work with, there's always something to learn from".
All that knowledge and contacts have brought him to where he is today, in what is truly his passion, the genetic development of the shrimp. An industry where the challenge ahead Benchmark Genetics is "to be ahead of the game, predicting today what will come in the future. That's the challenge: always be there with our clients in the market and the farming industry. Not just in Hawaii in my office, but be there and listen to and see what's happening, feeding back to our nucleus breeding center and developing the lines or breeders we need".
Oscar Hennig adds two more challenges that affect the entire aquaculture industry. The first is diseases. "It's still the biggest challenge in my view", he says, "the challenge that has been with us for quite a while". And the second is the image, "aquaculture has to start educating consumers", he states. In his opinion, the aquaculture sector now offers high-quality aquatic proteins. He wonders: if the three main species – salmon, shrimp, and tilapia – have become a staple product, something you find every day in supermarkets and on menus worldwide, why does the aquaculture industry still have a bad reputation? "It's from the inside out. The industry should educate the public on what is being done so people can understand what they're buying", he concludes.
Inevitably, after this reflection, the Operations Director of Benchmark Genetics Shrimp lists the advantages of farmed shrimp. He starts with sustainability, recalling that shrimp fishing still happens in many areas with trawl gear, and this "just destroys anything at the bottom of the ocean". He also reminds us that "the pond becomes a soup of other organisms, and then the shrimp graze on that". Farmed shrimp are also naturally fed, so, in his opinion, there is no data to show that wild shrimp taste better or are more nutritious than farmed shrimp. And, last but not least, logistics. "Everything that you can farm, you can have the logistic chain ready", he argues, "you organize everything for the shrimp to go from your pond to either fresh at someone's table that same day or to the processing plant within a couple of hours".
As said, Oscar Hennig is passionate about shrimp breeding. He saw its future and bet everything on it from when he was fresh out of college. That was in the '90s. Thirty years later, he still has his vision of the future, and the keyword is aquaculture.
Benchmark Genetics Shrimp operates a world-leading Penaeus vannamei breeding program. From its breeding nucleus in Colombia, and its state-of-the-art, biosecure Elite Multiplication Center in Fellsmere, FL, USA, it develops, produces and globally distributes genetically improved, high-performance SPR/SPF shrimp strains with improved health and efficiency adapted to modern farming conditions. The company is part of Benchmark Holdings, which offers products and solutions for agricultural producers in three complementary business areas, genetics, health, and advanced nutrition.