City whizz solves agricultural shrimp mystery

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Tran Huu Loc, 29, received a full scholarship to Arizona University in the US, where he discovered the reasons behind mass shrimp fatalities. He tells Hai Yen how his research provided an in-depth analysis of one of the 20 most remarkable events to happen in Arizona during 2013.

Inner Sanctum: On learning that you had carried out research on why shrimps were dying in such large numbers, I thought that you must have been born in the countryside or by the sea and familiar with fish and shrimps.

Many people have shared your thoughts, but I was actually born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City. After graduating from Agriculture and Forestry University, in aquaculture, I received a scholarship to study my PhD degree in Arizona University, majoring in microorganisms and the study of shrimp diseases since 2010. I’m keen on studying the aquatic world and the kingdom of fish and shrimps.

At 10 years old, I got totally absorbed when reading books about the sea and since then I have had a strong passion for aquaculture. I like fishing, not for food but for thinking and studying fish and their world.

Inner Sanctum: The disease that has wiped out tonnes of shrimps first appeared in Viet Nam in 2010, with farmers reporting huge losses. How did you learn about this disease and study it?

In 2010, when I arrived in the US, a shrimp disease called “early mortality syndrome or acute hepatopancreatic necrosis syndrome (EMS/AHPNS)” had started to appear in Viet Nam. The disease had never been seen before in the scientific world and caused massive losses to shrimp farmers in Viet Nam and in southeast Asia as a whole.

My thesis is considered one of the toughest in the scientific history of shrimp diseases. After three years of research, I finally identified the causes behind EMS/AHPNS.

I submitted my paper to a leading scientific magazine on aquatic diseases, after which it was acknowledged by the global scientific community. My study was chosen as one of the 20 most outstanding pieces of work from Arizona University in 2013. The final piece of research also helped me to secure my three-year PhD study.

Inner Sanctum: You concentrated on studying a disease that the global scientific community seemed to have given up on. To discover the causes of the disease, you must have had to deal with lots of risks and difficulties?

It is true that the world scientific community seems to have given up after several years studying the causes of this strange disease. A huge effort on an international scale attracted numerous organisations but the causes behind the disease were never discovered.

It was not easy as sometimes I had to go to work at 5am, arriving at the laboratory to finish my research then return to the university with my clothes still wet. After school, I would go back to the laboratory to continue studying then return to university to work until late at night. There were some days I had to work for 18 hours or even longer. Despite being so busy, I still arranged time to return to Viet Nam to get samples.

Despite so many difficulties, these new experiences gave me confidence. If in the future Viet Nam’s shrimp industry faces a similar problem, I will know what to do.

Along with studying, I have written a draft asking for financial support. Fortunately, many partners have agreed to offer support such as the World Bank, Global Aquaculture Alliance, FAO, domestic and foreign aquatic businesses. Added to that, the farmers have wholeheartedly supported me.

Inner Sanctum: What have you learned from the farmers that you work with?

One character of Vietnamese farmers is their keenness to study and seek solutions for moving forward to perfection. After several trips to southeastern Asian countries to provide technical support and teach the farmers about aquaculture, I realised that farmers in neighbouring countries are not as determined as the Vietnamese, which teaches me a lesson that we always have to try our best to work, move forward and do useful things.

Inner Sanctum: I have learned that you constantly return to Viet Nam to attend scientific conferences on aquaculture and use your own money to invite renowned US professors to attend?

I have organised dozens of conferences, in which foreign professors and I are the speakers. The conferences have attracted a large number of students, scientists and aquatic businesses. I’m very happy when the topics of diseases, solutions for reducing risks and improving the sustainability of aquatic production have been applied and paid attention to. I’m willing to provide emails and phone contacts so that the farmers can consult when necessary.

It is not totally true that I’ve spent my own money on inviting the professors. At times I have bought them flight tickets and booked hotel rooms for them, but I often take advantage of their business trips to Southeast Asia. They are very happy to accept my invitation because they want to do something good for the community. Their compensation is often a pleasant night drinking cold beer and enjoying Vietnamese food.

I’m also willing to accept invitations from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Middle East and Latin America, to offer technical support following the request of FAO.

Inner Sanctum: You major goal is to help the farmers prosper in aquaculture, what are your plans for the future?

I hope that aquatic farmers will be able to keep their land and houses. That might sound ridiculous, but in fact, farming is full of risks. A farmer might become penniless because of disease or price fluctuations. I hope that in the near future, Viet Nam will become the world’s leading country for exporting shrimps, and that shrimp farmers lead a better life.

I think that mastering the science of shrimp diseases is very important for the country. I, together with other people who are dedicated to shrimp farming, am planning to build a centre focusing on studying shrimp diseases. I want to continue to connect with other experts so that Viet Nam can gradually master this science and that it will benefit the farmers in the most effective ways. — VNS

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