When it comes to local sturgeon farming, Sterling Caviar is ahead of the class
I’ve been reading George Orwell lately. I’ve also been thinking about aquaculture, and a simple mantra can be applied to the salmon industry: “Wild good, farmed bad, wild good, farmed bad.” We all repeat this like sheep now any time we enter a fish market, knowing and believing it to be true, as surely as we know that two plus two equals four.
But sometimes, as Orwell said, two plus two equals five.
Consider farmed sturgeon. This is one case where fish farms are the sustainable solution to fishery depletion, for wild stocks of many sturgeon species worldwide have dwindled due to overfishing for the caviar trade. The beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) has suffered about as badly as any of them, once teeming in the Caspian and Black seas and reaching 3,000 pounds and more, but now relatively rare and small.
As international prohibitions begin to regulate the caviar trade, several local sturgeon farms have developed in answer to the market niche that wild sturgeon can no longer fulfill. Sterling Caviar, on the northern outskirts of Sacramento, was founded in 1986 after the United States halted trade with Iran, then a major exporter of wild Caspian caviar. The company initially took young sturgeon from the Delta to raise to breeding size, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the first females grew “ripe” and produced the first crop of caviar.
Today the company operates three facilities in Sacramento County, raising exclusively white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), a fish native to the North American West Coast and capable of reaching nearly a ton in weight and more than a century in age. The fish live in enclosed tanks of recirculating, filtered fresh water and eat a specialized feed formula. The fish mature and grow about twice as quickly as their wild counterparts for reasons not entirely certain, says operations manager Peter Struffenegger. Most of the large sturgeon are females, as the farm culls males from the population at just three years of age and 25 pounds and processes them for their firm, white meat, available locally at the Virgin Sturgeon and Mulvaney’s Building and Loan restaurants.
The females live on until they are 8 to 10 years old and nearly 70 pounds, and between January and June they ripen. One by one, selectively and as needed, they are removed by hand from their tanks, dispatched and opened. Their hefty roe sacks, which may weigh 15 pounds, are carefully extracted. The fish themselves are sent onward to be processed for their meat, while their eggs—quinoa-looking pearls—are salted and partially dried. They are graded by size, firmness, taste and color, then packaged and distributed into the Sacramento market and outward across the nation and the world.
In 2008, Sterling produced 12 tons of caviar, and Struffenegger is wary of producing any more than that this season, since he doesn’t want to flood the market. At current prices, local caviar retails in jars and tins for as much as $80 per ounce. Yikes. Corti Brothers carries Sterling’s caviar, and while Struffenegger is trying to widen the market, progress is slow.
“This is a product that has skipped generations,” said Struffenegger. “People aren’t familiar with it. From the early 1900s until the 1980s, there was no wild sturgeon.”
That’s because the fishery for Californian white sturgeon, which live in saltwater much of their lives and spawn in larger rivers, was shut down in 1901. Just 30 years prior, sturgeon thrived—and big ones. But by 1901, the white sturgeon was vanishing. In a remarkable show of foresight, the young state government gave the fish full protection in an era when eradicating species was still considered wholesome recreation. The white sturgeon has largely recovered, and today sport fishermen may pursue the fish.
But the vast majority of sturgeon meat and caviar sold commercially in California is from fish raised in tanks, as it well should be, and if there is a moral here, it’s that exceptions apply to rules. Two plus two may, in reality, always equal four, but sometimes farmed is good and wild is bad.