Rich ambitions for remote caviar farm

Until recently, the caviar industry was a complex, murky world shrouded in crime and corruption. While it isn’t completely free of such unsavory activities yet, the advent of sturgeon and caviar aquaculture has proved an important, Usain Bolt-like stride in the right direction.

Caviar’s gourmet appeal hasn’t waned in recent times; if anything the demand has grown. As a result and also because of various clampdowns on the wild sturgeon caviar trade, there have been several new farming projects launched all over the world in the past five-or-so years, including some very grand-scale multi-million dollar operations.

Some have found commercial success while others have failed; the danger is certain types of investors “read the word ‘caviar’ on a PowerPoint presentation and get dollar signs in their eyes, which is absolutely not enough” in a sector littered with costly pitfalls, stressed Dietmar Firzlaff, owner of German aquaculture project company AquaFuture e.k. and a fish farmer for more than 40 years.

In 2005, Firzlaff was recruited by Sheriff Ltd. to devise a recirculation aquaculture system (RAS) concept for a sturgeon farming facility in its native Transnistria, a Soviet breakaway republic in Eastern Europe sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Four years later, the resultant company — called Aquatir — began selling its own caviar, and this year, it will produce one metric ton (MT) of the coveted delicacy.

The 50,000 square meter farm was designed and delivered by Billund Aquaculture Service A/S with a production capacity of 5 MT in mind, but Firzlaff said results show that it could be much more. He hails the vision held by Sheriff’s management — an unerring determination to produce high-quality black caviar.  To achieve this “main goal,” Aquatir focuses on four different species: Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus), Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), Beluga (Huso huso) and Bester (a hybrid of Beluga and Sterlet).

In the future, Aquatir might also consider farming Starry sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus), because it is an endangered species and the company has the capacity to assist restocking projects, said Firzlaff.

In total, the farm has 30 MT of female broodstock in the water. Each species takes a different length of time to mature and it was able to get Sterlet caviar to market fairly quickly. This ticked three crucial boxes: first, it ensured its staff were extensively trained in caviar production; second, that the technology deployed was fully optimized; and last, that there was some return on the investment.

The biggest priorities, however, are the Russian sturgeon and the Beluga - the latter being the most difficult to farm in terms of habitat and feed.

Belugas are the biggest of all sturgeon species. In the wild, they take 15-20 years before they produce caviar, but that hasn’t put Aquatir off. It has already succeeded in reducing the time taken to mature its three other species by 25 to 50 percent and has achieved a number of breakthroughs with its “pure Belugas,” which are of Caspian and Azov-Black Sea origin.

Aquatir is confident it will be selling its first Beluga caviar into the market in 2014. It will also look at the viability of selling Beluga meat, which would be processed at on-site facilities that comprise two factory buildings each with a different processing line, including one that harvests caviar without needing to kill the fish, a process invented by Russian sturgeon expert Sergey Podushka in 1998.

“Sturgeon meat is easy to produce, but to produce high-quality caviar all year round is not easy,” said Firzlaff.

Everything the company currently produces is sold into just four markets — Ukraine, Moldova, Russia and the United States — but Firzlaff explained the reason for this concentration is simply because it doesn’t have enough caviar to reach all its target markets.

“We will increase the production dramatically in the next three years and for that we are preparing for sales to new markets like the EU, Japan and Dubai.”

Firzlaff also believes that in the not too distant future all the serious, large caviar dealers will request proof of sustainability, which will lead to more third-party certifications and also make it harder for the illegal caviar trade to operate.

“Aquaculture is the only way to supply caviar to the world,” he said. “There are some restocking activities but they aren’t effective enough. Even if those projects were improved, it would take more than 50 years to rebuild the wild stocks. We want to have sturgeon back in the wild and that is only possible if aquaculture takes an important role.”   


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