Farming for Black Gold

Ken Beer has a farm in the Central Valley, just about 20 miles south of Sacramento. The fifty-year-old farmer’s face is lined and weathered from many years of living on the land. But while his neighbors raise dairy cattle,  alfalfa and winter wheat, Beer’s farm is filled with row upon row of white, circular tanks that hold about one million pounds of California white sturgeon.
On a clear October day, Beer explains the workings of his unusual farm as we watch maturing female sturgeon swim graceful circles in one of his 75,000 gallon tanks. They are big, most over six feet long, but are surprisingly hard to see in the dark water—just dim shapes moving in the murky depths and short dorsal fins breaking the surface. They don’t seem to mind when I put my hand into the cold water and let my fingers slide over their slick skin, tracing the bony ridges along their backs. Suddenly, one knocks against the on-demand feeder, releasing a few pellets into the water, and the fish interrupt their circling to thrash on the surface and slurp up some food, revealing a glimpse of white lips and gaping mouths.
“They can’t see very well,” says Beer, watching the  circling shadows. “They don’t really respond when you come up to them. They find their food by sense of smell.”
Beer has been caring for some of these fish for over 12 years, raising them from tiny fry to 100-pound behemoths through a daily supply of food pellets and a constant flow of clean, oxygenated water. In less than a month he will find out how well his investment paid off. For inside the belly of each mature female Beer hopes he’ll find the black gold of the sea: caviar.
For connoisseurs and gourmets, choices about caviar are usually pretty simple. Beluga or osetra? One ounce or two? But now, people like Ken Beer are allowing consumers to face a more profound choice: wild … or farm-raised?
Caviar has long been equated with luxury, the food of kings and czars. But while the sturgeons that produce caviar were once abundant in the oceans, lakes, and seas of the northern hemisphere, they have been fished to dangerously low levels around the world. In North America, five of the nine species of sturgeon and closely related paddlefish are federally listed as endangered, while in the Caspian Sea, which historically has been home to the world’s largest abundance of sturgeon, annual catches have dropped by 95 percent in the last hundred years, from over 20,000 tons in the early 1900s to only 1000 tons in the late 1990s. While many government and international agencies have tried to regulate sturgeon fisheries, the high price of caviar, which can sell for well over $100 an ounce, continues to draw poachers and black market smugglers into an illegal trade.
That same high value has also drawn a trio of California fish-farm entrepreneurs—Ken Beer’s The Fishery, Stolt Sea Farm, and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar—which, together with a little fresh water and aquaculture expertise, have turned a small section of the state’s Central Valley into the caviar-farming capital of the world, producing a gourmet product that is competing with Caspian imports. Environmentalists hope that the sturgeon circling at Ken Beer’s farm will  help take the pressure off the wild fish populations half  a world away.
Sturgeon farming may be relatively new to California,  but this is not the first time the US has produced quality caviar. The first American caviar boom started in the mid-1800s, with an intensive sturgeon fishing industry springing up practically overnight. The rush hit hardest along the Delaware River, where a town called Caviar, New Jersey once had 22 caviar and sturgeon wholesalers in the late 1890s.
At the time it seemed that the stock of sturgeon could never be exhausted. Thousands of the spawning fish fought their way up America’s great rivers each year, their bellies almost bursting with black roe. Most of the caviar was packed in barrels and shipped off to European markets. Sturgeon eggs were so abundant that they were even given away as snacks in local saloons. But by the 1920s the stocks were already hopelessly overtaxed. Fishermen were pulling up empty nets, or just a few juvenile fish with empty bellies. The American caviar rush was over.
Until humans intervened, sturgeon lived successfully for millennia. According to fossil records, sturgeon ancestors, virtually identical to today’s species, swam the rivers and seas over 250 million years ago, before most dinosaurs roamed the earth or joined them in the sea. While young sturgeons have a high mortality rate, adults can reach enormous size, outgrowing most natural predators. Sturgeon, in fact, are the largest freshwater fish on the planet, with the largest specimen on record, a member of the giant beluga sturgeon species Huso huso, reaching whale-like proportions, at 4,570 pounds and 28 feet in length. These fish also have impressive longevity—many species have a lifespan of over one hundred years—and are relatively fecund, with females easily producing 10 million eggs each spawning cycle.
The species’ last Old World holdout  exists in the Caspian Sea, where a tightly regulated fishery under the former Soviet Union kept populations under relative control. But when the USSR collapsed in 1991, the fisheries went completely unregulated. In the Volga River, which provides the spawning ground for an estimated 75 percent of the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon catch, the number of spawning beluga sturgeon dropped by almost 75 percent in the first six years after the Soviet Union’s demise. In 1997, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) added all sturgeon species worldwide to its Appendix II listing of threatened species, requiring careful regulation of fishing and trade, but by that time the fisheries were firmly in the hand of the Russian mafia and illegal trade of caviar had grown to an estimated 10 times the amount of legal trade.
Since the CITES listing in 1997, steps have been taken to help preserve sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian states started conducting annual trawl surveys to estimate sturgeon populations and have set up hatchery programs to help these populations recover from the loss of spawning grounds, and governments have started cracking down on poachers and smugglers. But some environmental groups fear the current efforts are not enough to save the species. They have petitioned to add beluga sturgeon to the US endangered species act, which would prohibit the sale of beluga caviar in America. These same groups have promoted farmed caviar as an alternative to the Caspian catch and a way to help preserve the remaining sturgeon.
Ken Beer wasn’t thinking of saving threatened species when he started studying sturgeon aquaculture 25 years ago. He had been raising catfish for about three years and was thinking of ways to make his farm more efficient. At the time, Beer was topping off his giant, earth-lined catfish ponds, some covering over 10 acres, by pumping in water from the aquifer beneath his land. It was clear, pristine water—drinking-water quality—that came out at a constant cold temperature. But catfish thrive in warm, muddy ponds with a complex community of algae and microorganisms. The water quality  in the huge ponds was mostly determined by the living ecosystem, not the small amount of water added to replace evaporation. To Beer, it seemed like a waste. “It always bothered me that we had this wonderful water and put it into muddy catfish ponds,” he said. “That’s 68 degree water. Too warm for trout, too cold for catfish.” It turned out to be perfect for sturgeon, which do much better in controlled tanks than muddy ponds. Now Beer is able to get two “crops” out of the same water, using the pristine well water for his sturgeon tanks, then recycling it to keep his catfish ponds full.
Beer didn’t know how well things would work out back in 1979, when he started studying sturgeon aquaculture as a UC Davis graduate student. At the time, there was a lot of money available to research the aquaculture of white sturgeon, the species native to California rivers. But it was a brand-new field, and research was sorely needed.
“There was very little known about the white sturgeon,” said Beer. “We needed to find its life history, population statistics, its life span, embryonic development, how to grow it, how to spawn it. We were pretty clueless.”
Beer’s advisor at UC Davis, professor Serge Doroshov, agrees. “It’s a very large fish, and there was no information on how it would behave in aquacultures.” In wild populations, the maturation age in females was determined to be between 15 and 30 years, which would make raising sturgeon for caviar prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, research showed that, with more nutritious food and a controlled environment, the fish mature much faster in captivity, around seven to 10 years, making sturgeon farming economically feasible.
Beer calls those early years of sturgeon farming the “wild west.” White sturgeon is a threatened species and the state allows only a limited amount of recreational fishing, so Beer and others pursuing sturgeon aquaculture needed to get a special permit from California Department of Fish and Game to take spawning females and establish their stock. They hired sport fishermen to get a few females, and Beer remembers getting calls from crazy fishermen in the middle of the night and trucking down some back road to haul in a slippery, spawning 50-pound fish.
Because sturgeon farming uses a land-based facility with fresh water, it avoids many of the harmful environmental effects of other aquaculture, like open-water salmon farming. There are no escapes and mixing of gene pools, no contamination of wild species with diseases or parasites, and no flow of wastes directly into any open water resource. At Beer’s farm, water from the sturgeon tanks is used to keep the catfish ponds full and to irrigate his neighbors’ crops.
However, sturgeon farming still has an environmental footprint. Beer pumps 3,000 gallons a minute of water at each of his two sites to keep a fresh flow through his sturgeon tanks. It’s an incredible amount of water, especially for a drought-prone state like California, but Beer says it’s pretty typical for a farm like his. The water table for his land hasn’t dropped over the last 20 years, he says, and since the runoff is used to irrigate his neighbors’ fields, it lets them avoid pumping their own water from the ground. Beer is hoping to improve on his water recycling efforts in the future and be able to grow more fish without increasing his water use.
Water isn’t the only resource these fish consume. The growing sturgeon are fed a diet of pellets made from  vegetable products and fish proteins, which often come from species caught by accident in fishing industry or from small fish like anchovies, which have their own harmful fishing practices. But sturgeon are pretty good at converting food into fish, Beer says, providing about one pound of meat for every 1.5 to 2 pounds of fish food. At three years old, the sex of the fish is determined and the males are sold for meat. The females are left to mature until they are seven years old, when they are checked each year for maturing eggs. Beer has some fish that are 13 years old, still with no sign of ripening caviar
As a small farmer, Beer does not have the capacity to market and promote a luxury product like caviar, or  to raise spawning stock to continue the species. His fish begin and end their lives at Stolt Sea Farm, a multinational aquaculture corporation with its caviar headquarters just down the road. In the late spring, Beer gets his yearly crop of fish, 150,000 of them, as two-day-old fry sent down from Stolt, wrapped snugly in 20-pound plastic bags filled with water and pure oxygen. The females spend the  next seven to 15 years circling in Beer’s ponds. Then,  when Beer determines that they are bearing maturing  eggs, they are sent back to Stolt for the final stage of  their journey.
Beer’s farm is miniscule compared to Stolt, which  produces everything from Chilean Atlantic salmon to  Australian blue fin tuna. But Stolt’s California farms are all about white sturgeon—and their precious caviar. The company owns four locations where the fish are spawned, raised, matured, processed into meat and caviar, and marketed throughout the nation and around the world.
On a November day, I visit one of Stolt’s farms south of Sacramento, tucked along a dirt road behind a field of cattle. As I approach the tank, I see three men dressed in black waders and yellow slickers standing up to their hips in the cold water. The men are in the process of checking a group of female sturgeon, aged seven to 10, for ripe eggs, determining which ones will be ready for caviar production in the spring and which need a few more years to mature. Peter Strufenegger, Stolt’s general production manager,  is standing at the ready, clipboard in hand. The men gather around a shallow gray plastic tub where several adult  sturgeons, subdued with a light anesthetic called Aqui-S,  undulate languidly.
One young man grabs the nearest fish, flips her onto her back, and jabs a small pocket knife into her white underbelly. Grabbing a plastic tube tied around his neck, he inserts one end of the tube into the bleeding incision and sucks a bit of what’s inside into the straw, spitting it back on his hand to see what it looks like. They are white, immature eggs, not ready for caviar.
“One year,” he says, flipping the 100 pound fish into a net on the right. “Confirm, one year,” says Strufenegger, marking his chart. Immature fish like this one will be returned to the tank, to swim in peace for another year before they are checked again for caviar. Meanwhile, the site manager, Brendan Moore, checks another fish, jabbing her belly and spitting out a cluster of dark beads.
“Black eggs,” he calls, in a loud auctioneer-like voice. “Black eggs,” Strufenegger confirms, marking it down on his clipboard. Moore and another man wrestle the thrashing female out of the gray container and into the net on the left, on top of another waiting fish.
Another man samples a female’s eggs and eyes them suspiciously, then looks up at Strufenegger, showing him the gray beads on his palm. Strufenegger takes the eggs in his hand and looks at them. “Those are okay,” he says. “Black eggs,” the man calls and pushes the fish to the net on the left. Strufenegger marks off the sheet, then puts one of the eggs in his mouth.
“You taste them?” I ask, and he nods. “What do they taste like?” He scrapes one into my palm and I put the bead in my mouth, rolling it with my tongue and finally popping through the outer coating. It’s round and a little mushy. “They don’t taste like much now,” he says. I concur.
But Stolt hopes the eggs will taste like something in the spring. Today, these “black egg” females will be loaded onto a truck and moved to a special tank at a different farm, where colder water will allow the immature eggs to ripen.
With caviar, timing is especially crucial. There is a critical window when the eggs are fully mature, but have not yet separated from the ovary. These eggs will have the firm pop so desired in premium grade caviar. Once the eggs are ready to for fertilization, they produce pores to let in the sperm, which also results in mushy caviar. There is no way to know the exact stage of development without opening up the fish.
If everything goes according to plan, these females, averaging over 100 pounds each, will produce 10 to 25 percent of their body weight in high quality caviar. The eggs are lightly salted and vacuum-sealed in special tins imported from Italy, then held for sale until the next holiday season. Around Christmas time next year, they will be sold under the Sterling Caviar label at $38 an ounce, much less than the $160 price tag of the highest grade imported caviar.
But getting people to buy the farmed caviar hasn’t always been easy. Chuck Edwards, marketing manager for Stolt Sea Farm, said, “We couldn’t just call up a chef and get him to accept the product. They would say, ‘Yes, but people who come into our restaurant ask for beluga.’”
On thing the enterprise had going for it was that farmed sturgeon produce an excellent caviar. “We found out right away that the quality of this fish’s caviar competes head to head with imported caviar,” said Edwards. Aquaculturists can control every variable in the sturgeons’ environment, from water quality and to type of food. Wild fish can be exposed to contaminants like PCBs or other pollutants. When they are caught, they may thrash around, get stressed out, and often lie in a boat for some time before they are processed. Aquaculture critics will often say that farmed fish tastes farmed, but Beer thinks poor quality simply comes from bad farming practices. “In the wild, when you catch a fish you get what you get,” he said. “On a farm the food is consistent. If the product tastes bad, it’s our fault.”
The fact that wild sturgeons are threatened by overfishing hasn’t hurt business. “As we fit into sustainable fish farming and have a sustainable product, with all that publicity the Caspian Sea has received, I think we’ve gotten a lot of play marketwise for that,” says Edwards. Several prominent chefs have taken a stand against overfishing by serving only farm-raised caviar in their restaurants.
One of these is Jardinière, a trendy San Francisco restaurant famous for its commitment to sustainably produced seafood. I met with Larry Bain, Jardinière’s director of operations, one evening to discuss the decision to switch to farmed caviar two years ago. As the staff below bustles about, shining silverware and deciding where to seat the night’s reservations, Bain waxes poetic about caviar.
“Why is it so delicious and fabulous?” he asks incredulously, leaning in across the table. He can hardly believe I have never tasted the stuff. “When caviar is good, it gives you this incredible array of experience,” he begins, almost closing his eyes. “It is beautiful to look at, with a depth and glow that can only be found in rare gemstones, like black pearls. The aroma is very distinct. Good caviar smells like you are standing on the edge of a fresh rushing river. There is a tinge of ozone. When you put it in your mouth, it has a remarkable texture; the eggs are silky and pop when you press them against the roof of your mouth. It’s like taking a little, lovely sip of ocean.”
He pauses, then opens his eyes. “Of course, there is also the sense of luxury,” he says. “I think everybody who orders caviar orders it for that reason. People like eating things that are expensive and rare.”
For Jardinière’s upscale clients—the opera house set, Bain explains—luxury is a must. And for some, luxury means imported Russian caviar. Bain remembers being called over one evening by an older woman at table 52 and asked about the farmed caviar. When Bain explained the decision to switch to a more sustainable product, the woman would have none of it. She said she always ate Caspian Sea caviar and that’s all she would eat. She seemed almost delighted to know that it was an endangered species and that she might be the last one to eat it.
“For me, it’s a challenge,” says Bain. “The caviar has to be delicious. There can absolutely be no compromise on flavor. But then we ask is it sustainable for the planet? Is it sustainable for people?”
Not all of Jardinière’s clients are as rigid as the woman at table 52. Bain says he sees more and more customers who are educated and concerned about overfishing. Will enough people decide to curb their appetite for a luxury food to save a species that has existed for 250 million years? For now, the six to eight pounds of caviar served each week at Jardinière is that much less taken from the Caspian Sea. It’s a small, but significant, step.

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