Small shellfish, but big business: one shrimper’s life raising prawns

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Small shellfish, but big business: one shrimper’s life raising prawns

GOJAM, South Chungcheong
In this small, peaceful village, a dog barks from a distance, and soon a man with white hair and a long beard emerges from a house. The man’s skin is dark, almost scorched from spending so much time outdoors; his arms are tough as a bull’s horn.
That’s the first impression Han Gwan-seok makes. Pointing at his 4.3-hectare (11-acre) shrimp farm, he introduces himself by saying, “I’m a farmer, not a fisherman.”
Mr. Han explains that he’s a farmer because he raises the crustaceans, rather than catching them wild. He won’t let visitors talk too loudly, because, as he puts it, “the shrimp will hear you.” Before harvesting his crops, Mr. Han says, a farmer never brags about it, for fear he will be jinxed.
In a quiet voice, however, Mr. Han says he expects to harvest 15 tons of shrimp this year. Considering that a kilogram (2.2 pounds) is worth at least 21,000 won, if Mr. Han is correct, he will rake in about 300 million won ($253,000) in one harvest.
Mr. Han spends a great deal of time on his feet, and has spent many sleepless nights; as he sees it, his harvest consists of living creatures that need a great deal of care.
Though he’s been harvesting shrimp for 12 years, this “farmer” has sharp reflexes and plenty of energy.
“I don’t show this often,” he says before suddenly throwing a fishing net in midair and drawing in a bunch of moving shrimp. “Well, it is okay,” says Mr. Han after inspecting the catch. But a grim shadow descends on his face. This year’s weather hurt Mr. Han’s operation, and could result in a smaller-than-average harvest.
“Just like with farming, weather is very important to harvesting shrimp,” Mr. Han notes. “The weather influences the productivity of plankton, which is shrimp food.” He needs more than 10 tons of plankton for an abundant harvest.
A shrimper’s year lasts from March to the end of October. In March, the ground must be turned over, and by early April sea water is allowed to flow in. For one month, plankton and other kinds of shrimp food are prepared, and by May the newborn shrimp are deposited in the water and grow until harvest time five months later.
Since the shrimp business is so profitable, a lot of people who barely know what it’s about have dived in. “Out of all 450 shrimp farms across the country, only 20 percent will hang on,” Mr. Han predicts. “You think shrimp will grow by themselves, but that’s not true. Once a virus spreads, you’re pretty much out of business.”
Before 1992, Mr. Han only knew about shrimp from eating it. He ran a small business in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul. But he left city life behind after a friend clued him in to the shrimp business.
Mr. Han said he was amazed that 40 to 50 shrimp were only worth 10,000 won on the wholesale market. When he started out, he learned the ropes by visiting old-time shrimpers with some liquor and a smile to break the ice.
“Business was really bad a few times and I acquired a 300-million-won debt,” Mr. Han recalls. “I finally repaid it last year.”
With all his struggles, Mr. Han is content. In fact, he feels he got a second lease on life. In 1987, he was returning from a two-year stint on a construction project in Iraq. He was scheduled to take Korean Air Flight 858 but, due to some happenstance, ended up on another flight. Mr. Han’s friends in Iraq, who took Flight 858, perished as the plane exploded in midair over the Bay of Bengal, reportedly the work of North Korean agents. “I do my best every day, but I enjoy life as well,” Mr. Han says.

by Lee Man-hoon
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