A Shellfish Idea

The Montana Fresh Shrimp Company getting ready to begin sales of locally grown crustaceans

By Molly Priddy
David Dutro, owner of Montana Fresh Shrimp Co., shows shrimp on May 31, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In a nondescript warehouse in the northwest corner of a landlocked state, tens of thousands of saltwater shrimp swim and float and jump if given the opportunity, growing under the watchful eyes of their handlers.

Last week, the eldest batch of shrimp at the Montana Fresh Shrimp Company were still young enough to be translucent, but in founder and CEO David Dutro’s eyes, these little specimens are a solid representation of a new business venture seeking to cancel the distance seafood needs to travel to be fresh for Montana tables.

“We think that we can give to communities a much better product,” Dutro said. “This is a shrimp ranch and we’re all shrimp wranglers.”

He acknowledged the idea of growing saltwater seafood in Montana, with its many streams and rivers but zero oceans, might take a while to sink in for some, but it’s a practice catching on in other landlocked states as well.

Dutro said his inspiration for the company came from a Morning Edition report on NPR in 2013, featuring a man in central Illinois growing shrimp.

“I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’” Dutro said.

A little bit later, he was tasked with researching aquaponics, which is the combination of raising fish with hydroponics, a system of soil-less plant growth. It got him thinking about the shrimp again, and Dutro spent a couple of months talking out the idea with Rod McNeil, now the chief scientist, and Ryan McNeil, now the head of operations.

From there, the Montana Fresh Shrimp Company was born.

“This became a true startup,” he said.

After taking care of the legal paperwork, such as that involved with importing the Pacific white shrimp, and finding the building for the base of operations outside of Evergreen, the company got to work in May of 2015.

This included rehabbing and painting the entire interior, with special attention paid to the affects of salt water on a building. They built a cascade system of tanks for the shrimp, sitting just under 18 feet tall with four levels of tanks.

At the top level, the young shrimp are fed and grow in the 84-degree water, and when they hit the appropriate size and age, are flushed through a large pipe down into the next tank, and on and on until they are harvested at the bottom level.

It’s efficient, Dutro said, because as soon as the young shrimp leave the top level, another cohort can go in, meaning little time is lost between batches.

The shrimp Dutro is growing will be the 36/40 size after four months, meaning medium large. To get to cocktail size, they’d have to grow for another two months.

When they first arrive, they are called PLs, for post-larvae. The tiny creatures are shipped up from Texas and Florida, 33,000 at a time.

The company intends on adding many more of the cascade systems to the largest section of the warehouse, and eventually grow 90,000 pounds of shrimp per year. Once it gets moving, Dutro said his company has a couple of choices.

It’s set up for retail and wholesale sales to grow this mass amount of shellfish, but they also might get into providing the PLs for other shrimp startups in the region, eventually franchising the Montana Fresh Shrimp Company.

In the next couple of years, Dutro hopes to add a restaurant and food truck to the company.

Along with the appeal of not having to pay to ship the shrimp across the country – or globe – in order to get a fresh meal, Dutro said his local shrimp will also have some algae enhancements, adding to their Omega-3 content.

They may also grow various types of shellfish, including giant tiger prawns.

It’s a sustainable operation, with the only water lost being through evaporation or the occasional spill. Dutro said his company also has the opportunity to produce a rich fertilizer from the shrimp byproducts, like droppings and shells.

With tank development still in the works, the company has some growing to do, but Dutro expects the first product to be available for sale in August of this year.

“It’s one step at a time,” he said.

For more information on the Montana Fresh Shrimp Company, call David Dutro at 520-331-6023.

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