University of Michigan student growing seafood in empty Detroit house

DETROIT – A University of Michigan graduate student is growing shrimp in an empty Detroit house.

Lizzie Grobbel, an environmental engineering master's student and a Dow Sustainability Fellow at UM, is pursuing a pilot project called "Urban revitalization through sustainable small-scale aquaculture."

With seed funding from UM's Dow Distinguished Awards for Interdisciplinary Sustainability Program, Grobbel is using a vacant house in Detroit to cultivate approximately 400 shrimp from larvae, distribute the mature shrimp within the city, and demonstrate aquaculture as a viable way to address the scarcity of locally grown seafood, while simultaneously finding productive uses for vacant property in the city.

"Detroit has an estimated 79,000 vacant homes, many of which the city wants to demolish," said Grobbel. "I started to question what a good alternative might be for some of the houses, and -- given the lack of locally produced protein in the city --figured shrimp aquaculture was worth a try."

Grobbel initially wanted to pursue her project in an abandoned building but soon realized there were problems with legal access, safety and security. That's when Darin McLeskey, a UM alumnus who owns a house in the city, offered it to Grobbel for the duration of her experiment --at no cost.

Grobbel assembled the necessary tank, feeding system and biofiltration system in the house's basement, since shrimp prefer the dark.

The setup includes a large plastic tank with salt water for her mail-order shrimp larvae. The tank is connected to cylindrical biofilters filled with crushed rock, on which bacteria grow and eat the shrimp's waste. The cleaned water is then recirculated into the tank, eliminating any waste buildup. Once larvae acclimate to the setup, they are transferred to standard fish tanks that are connected to the same biofilters.

Shrimp are typically fed commercial shrimp feed. However, Grobbel is testing the feasibility of using spent beer-brewing grains as a food source. She obtained spent grain from Wolverine State Brewing Co. in Ann Arbor and is test-feeding it to the shrimp.

The shrimp take three to four months to mature.

Grobbel is investigating the legal process behind selling and distributing unprocessed, frozen shrimp in Michigan.

"As far as a market for the seafood, my number one priority is within the city limits," Grobbel said. "I'll be giving out samples of the first crop to interested parties and, for subsequent crops, I am looking into possibilities with the Eastern Market, nearby restaurants and other local entities. My goal is for the shrimp to be produced, distributed and consumed all in Detroit."

Grobbel will complete a research report about the experimental results and community impact of her project in December. This report will be published online by UM's Graham Sustainability Institute,which administers the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program on behalf of the university.

Lizzie Grobbel's project website: