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California Caviar and Sturgeon Farming

California caviar is a growing business due to United Nations action to protect wild sturgeon

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Aquaculture for sustainable fish protein A United Nations ban on exporting most wild caviar was instituted in 2006, and this international caviar trade ban has certainly been fortuitous for California sturgeon fish farms such as Sterling Caviar.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, extended a temporary trade ban in April, 2006 on all wild sturgeon except for Persian roe from Iran. This is the first year that CITES has not approved annual caviar export quotas since it began monitoring the trade in 1998.

The ban resulted from pressure by environmentalists. According to Caviar Emptor, a coalition of environmentalists and scientists, the Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon has lost 90 percent of its population over the past 20 years due to overfishing, making the sturgeon one of the world's most endangered fishes.

Caviar is not easy to produce, Sterling invested more than a decade in research to improve quality and output. With this new niche marine food market, farmers have to set more females aside and wait at least five to six years before they start producing roe.

The caviar businesses that started as somewhat glamorous family operations have bigger companies entering the new marketplace for American caviar. Sterling is now part of Marine Harvest, one of the world's biggest fish farmers. Sterling's biggest rival, Tsar Nicoulai, is still privately owned and employs 26 to 50 people, depending on the season.

As demand for California caviar grows, so does the black market and poaching, leaving California's wild sturgeon at risk. California does not allow commercial fishing of sturgeon from the Sacramento River.

The California caviar industry started in the late 1970s when two Swedes, Mats and Dafne Engstrom, tried to make caviar from some sturgeon roe a friend had given them. The Engstroms and a few other pioneers discovered the California white sturgeon tasted comparable to the prized Caspian Sea sturgeon.

A huge amount of time and money was spent trying to master processing, especially since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will not allow American fish farmers to use preservatives often used by the Russians and Chinese. Both Tsar Nicoulai and Sterling have been working with scientists from the University of California at Davis to perfect the process.

The caviar industry can be compared with California's wine industry, dependent on the weather and initially snubbed by connoisseurs.

Knowing when the sturgeon roe is prime for harvest is much more unpredictable than knowing when grapes are ready to make wine. Seasonal weather and water variations affect when the fish are ready to spawn.

Generally, the rule in sturgeon farming is that the fish will produce about 10 percent of its weight in roe. So a 30-pound female fish produces about 3 pounds of caviar.

In the wild, sturgeon can live to be 100 and grow to 1,000 pounds or more.

Farmed caviar costs less than its Caspian rivals, for now. The price depends on the caviar's grade, but an ounce of high-quality roe will generally cost about $70. Caviar from the Caspian generally costs about double that. Tsar Nicoulai operates a caviar café in San Francisco where people can sample the roe for as little as $15.

REFERENCE: International Herald Tributen

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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