Can aquaculture save sturgeon?

Published on
July 25, 2010

Most people know that the sturgeon, like many other fish species, is in trouble. What they may not know is that all 27 species that live in the Northern Hemisphere are either threatened or endangered. This endangerment has happened in our lifetime, some 250 million years after the sturgeon first appeared on earth.

The world’s principle source of caviar is the Caspian Sea and its adjoining rivers, where the fish migrate to spawn. However, damning has seriously interrupted migration, pollution is causing sterility and poaching and overfishing are major threats to survival.

Despite the best efforts of authorities to tackle the problems, including an international ban on trade in beluga caviar and a proposal from Kazakhstan last week to introduce a 10-year moratorium on catches, aquaculture seems to be the best hope for the sturgeon’s survival. Conservation organizations and the Caviar Emptor campaign are all urging consumers to switch to farmed product.

One small lifeline is being offered by a hatchery at Carters Point, New Brunswick, Canada, which is producing caviar from Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) and shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum), both of which are caught in the Saint John River.

Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar is run by Dr. Cornel Ceapa, who moved to Canada to find the perfect place to start his aquaculture business, after gaining a PhD in caviar in his native Romania. Along with wife Davina and son Michael, Ceapa has spent the past five years building up the business.

“To raise money we began by taking legally caught sturgeon from local fishermen, undertaking genetic studies, selling meat from the large fish and tagging and releasing the smaller ones,” he explained. “We rented space at a local facility to spawn Atlantic sturgeon, then exported fertilised eggs, fry larvae and juveniles to the United States, Poland and Germany for aquaculture, restocking and research. The next step was the building of a small hatchery on the banks of the river to house broodstock, hatching and nursery tanks, followed last year by a small processing unit.”

The new facilities enabled Ceapa to build up a 60-strong broodstock of shortnose sturgeon, which grow to around 4 feet long. Atlantic sturgeon, which can reach 15 feet, are too large to keep permanently in the current premises and are still taken from the wild at spawning time. They are housed in tanks for three to four weeks, stripped of eggs and milt and then released back into the river.

“I have plans for a state-of-the-art tank farm with extensive on-growing facilities and a gene bank and hope to start building this later this year,” said Ceapa. “This will enable me to hold broodstock for both species and undertake a structured breeding program.”   

One of the main problems with wild sturgeon fisheries is that the fish are killed when removing the eggs. Ceapa uses a caesarean technique, which appears to cause them little distress; fish recover quickly and can be used for egg production for a number of years.

To process caviar, eggs are carefully washed and sieved to separate them, before salt is added. The curing process takes place in large tins that are refrigerated, with caviar repacked and sold at its best after two to three months.

Davina is the expert at this stage, when it is really important to get the quality right. “It sounds simple, but it is also easy to get it wrong,” said Ceapa. “The eggs are quite delicate, must be handled carefully and have the right amount of salt added to perfect the taste and texture.”

The company has built an excellent reputation for its caviar, which is available for wholesale, retail and mail-order customers in a range of sizes from 30 grams to 1,800 grams. Sturgeon meat is frozen in steaks or pieces and also smoked and thinly sliced. This product has a delicate taste and a firm, meaty texture.

Ceapa is excited about the future for his venture. “I hope that our planned breeding program will help to promote sturgeon to its right place in world aquaculture and reduce pressure on wild resources,” he said. “It should also produce more excellent caviar.”

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