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Dining: Aqua Cultured

Dexter Van Zile

The environmentalists’ complaints about Caspian Sea sturgeon have become increasingly difficult to ignore. Even the most ardent caviar connoisseurs have come to acknowledge that, given the depleted state of the 27 different sturgeon species in the region, sacrificing even one female fish for its caviar is akin to killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea, especially beluga, are down by as much as 90 percent over the last 20 years because of habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing. “Until they figure out a way to harvest caviar without killing the female sturgeon,” says Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, “we can’t afford to continue with this fishery.”

Speer’s sympathies may soon become law. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering placing Caspian Sea sturgeon on the endangered species list, which would result in a ban on caviar imports from the region. Yet, from an unlikely source, there comes hope for those who crave caviar.

Far from the former Soviet Union, in California’s fertile Sacramento Valley, the burgeoning business of sturgeon farming is producing a guilt-free version of nature’s most exclusive delicacy. The industry’s three most prominent players—Stolt Sea Farm in Sacramento; The Fishery in Galt, Calif. (which sells to Stolt); and Tsar Nicoulai, also in Sacramento—together currently produce more than 20,000 pounds of caviar per year. “Stolt is at about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds, and it’s increasing each year,” says Chuck Edwards, the company’s sales and marketing manager. Edwards, who estimates annual Caspian Sea imports at 90,000 pounds, acknowledges that farm-raised product is unlikely to overtake the imported variety in the short term. Within a few years, however, the three California companies hope to raise their combined annual production to 40,000 pounds or more.

As with other forms of aquaculture, sturgeon farming entails securing an initial supply of fish from the wild. Farmers then harvest the sturgeon’s eggs and milt to produce larvae, which eventually grow into fingerlings and then adults. After about eight years, the sturgeon become sexually mature, with the females producing eggs of their own. These eggs are then harvested for use as caviar or fertilized and allowed to mature to maintain the hatchery’s brood stock.

While it stands to decrease dependency on wild fish stocks, aquaculture is not without its detractors. Environmentalists have raised concerns over potential pollution from hatcheries, the use of antibiotics in the pens, and the prospect of farm-raised fish escaping into the wild. Sturgeon farming in the United States, however, avoids many of these pitfalls because the farms are located on land instead of waterways and oceans, and they operate with enclosed tanks that recycle wastewater.

Despite the utilitarian approach to its production, farm-raised caviar is not intended to become a product for the masses. Thanks to its subject’s eight-year maturation process, sturgeon farming requires a significant long-term investment from owners. “People think we’re lunatics,” says Dafne Engstrom, vice president of Tsar Nicoulai. “There’s a reason for that.”
The final product seems to be worth the wait. Dante Boccuzzi, executive chef at Aureole in New York City, says that the farm-raised caviar he purchases from Tsar Nicoulai has proved a safer bet than beluga. “The thing I’ve always noticed with the Caspian Sea caviar is that it was never consistent,” explains Boccuzzi. “At the farm, they control the water, they control what the fish eat, and they harvest the eggs at the proper time.”

Stolt Sea Farm (Sterling Caviar), 800.525.0333, www.sterlingcaviar.com
Tsar Nicoulai, 800.952.2842, www.tsarnicoulai.com

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