China's sturgeon producers create caviar dreams

Published on
August 13, 2012

Despite China’s ambition to be a world leader in caviar production the best chance for caviar from China may be in obscuring its origin.

That seems to be the case at the giant Jingshen seafood market in Beijing where Chinese caviar is sold in Cyrillic-language packaging. A CNY 50 price tag on a 30g jar is offered.

“It may look Russian but it’s sourced in China, definitely,” said stall holder Feng Lun.  

Chinese sturgeon growers, according to local media reports, are filling a gap left by poaching and overfishing of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. A series of articles in state media have outlined how China is driving huge investment in sturgeon and caviar processing facilities. Local media has boasted that “Made in China” caviar is being served in the first-class cabins of international airlines and sold under the French-based Petrossian label. China now accounts for 20 percent of world caviar output, according to the China Daily newspaper.

The most ambitious of the Chinese caviar farmers, Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Co., recently opened a new processing factory in Quzhou on the banks of the Yangtze River in Zhejiang province. At full capacity the plant will produce 35 tons of caviar annually.

“We only take orders above 100 kilos. We export to America, Europe, Japan and Middle Eastern countries, and our customers are usually suppliers for restaurants, processors and others,” a company spokesperson at the firm’s marketing department told SeafoodSource. The firm sells three kinds of caviar: Siberian sturgeon caviar (USD 584 per kilogram) as well as Amur Sturgeon caviar that it sells for USD 875 per kilogram. The firm also sells hybrid Sturgeon caviar for USD 872 per kilogram and sells its products on Alibaba, a popular B2B commerce portal.

Based in the central province of Hubei and producing 10 metric tons a year, Hubei Tian Xia Sturgeon Co. Ltd exports 100 kilograms of output, largely to European countries as well as the Americas, Japan and South Korea.

Often referred to as Chinese caviar, Kaluga is the name of the large sturgeon found in the Amur River, shared between China and Russia. The large-sized fish produces caviar similar to the other large sturgeon species like the Beluga. More than 1,200 farmed Chinese sturgeon were released into the Yangtze River in April to increase the numbers of this rare species in the wild. The country’s commercial caviar program dates back to 1997 when the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences released Siberian sturgeon into the Heilongjiang River.

Given the warm weather conditions on the country’s south coast, Chinese caviar production is particularly labor intensive — workers at Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Co. every summer have to transfer sturgeon from the submarine cages to cool-water ponds.

The long payback time — it takes seven years for sturgeon to reach maturity to produce eggs — has prompted entrants to the sector to seek investment. Among the newer players, Yunnan Amuer Sturgeon Aquaculture, based in southwesterly province of Yunnan, in 2011 announced a CNY 100 million investment from Dalian Zhangzidao Fishery Group Co, giving the listed Dalian aquaculture firm a 20 percent stake in Yunnan Amuer Sturgeon.

Caviar experts believe Chinese producers may achieve quality but will struggle to overcome a made-in-China association.

Roger Zwyer, author of the blog, Caviarist, said a “quite a good response in recent degustations” for Chinese caviar producers. There’s currently a relative surplus of farmed caviar coming from every corner of the world. The aspects that will determine the successful farmed caviar would be the water source, species, origin, processing technique and overall roe quality.”

Chinese caviar could be the big surprise within the industry, suggested Zwyer. “Sturgeon breeding is a very selective realm and know-how travels fast these days.”

Others see Chinese caviar as purely for a domestic Chinese market. While quality of Chinese caviar may be competitive “I just couldn’t sell it to clients,” commented a Caviarist.com reader.

“Once they became aware of origin, they would decline, even after commending the quality of a sample.”

China’s growing wealth may be a boon to local caviar producers but China’s brand-conscious wealthy may appear to be more inclined to imported product. A Li Ya restaurant in Jianguomen, a central Beijing business district, serves caviar from Russia (CNY 980 per 30g) and Siberia (CNY 650 per 30g) “You can enjoy it with bread or vegetables, better not with rice,” said restaurant staff.

The Western-styled Domus restaurant on Nanchizi Street, meanwhile, serves Burga caviar “from Iran” for CNY 238 while Fu Lou (Lucky House) in Long Bo Plaza, in upmarket Chaoyang district, serves domestic caviar served with grilled fish, potatoes and vegetables for CNY 179. Likewise French-styled restaurant Lé Pre Lenôtre in the five star Sofitel hotel offers imported caviar with oysters and scallops.

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