After international officials outlawed the export of wild caviar from the Caspian and Black Seas, the market has turned to farmed fish, and I have to say, the whole business comes off as slightly perverse*:
In the mid-1990’s the farmed caviar industry was nothing more than a few marine biologists with a dream. Today it is emerging as a global, multimillion-dollar business. Sturgeon farms in France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay are investing millions of dollars to expand facilities and to develop new technologies, like microchip implants, to create roe with a pop as perfect and a flavor as buttery as traditional wild caviar’s. In Bulgaria, Canada, China, Israel and the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi, fledgling caviar farmers are breaking ground on new production facilities.
. . .
Perhaps the most ambitious project to make up for the reduced supply is the farm in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, which will breed baerii, or Siberian, sturgeon. Backed by private investors, the $48 million facility is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2008, with the first caviar expected to be sold the next year. At its peak the farm will produce 32 tons annually, two times what is produced today in California.
Abu Dhabi may seem like an odd place to build a fish farm, but labor is cheap there and energy is cheaper. And there is a huge market for caviar on cruise ships that dock there, in the city’s hotels and among the Arab elite. Still, the project requires sophisticated water recirculation technologies to function in a desert. For the sturgeon to grow quickly and to produce eggs, for example, the water will need to be cooled to 68 to 72 degrees. And not a drop can be wasted. According to Christoph Hartung, chief executive of the German firm United Food Technologies, which has been hired to build and manage the farm, 95 percent of each day’s water will be filtered and reused.
It gets weirder:
With farmed sturgeon, biologists must rely on educated guesses about when a fish will release her eggs. In general, baerii sturgeon, the breed grown in farms in established European farms and newer operations in Asia and the Middle East, mature within five years. White sturgeon, grown in the United States and Italy, mature in eight.
To be sure, each fish must be individually biopsied. Marine biologists make a small incision, insert a plastic tube and manually suck a few eggs from each fish. If the test roe are black, the eggs are ready. If they are white, the fish will need about another year to reach full potential. Some fish are biopsied four or five times before they get it right, [farm manager Peter] Struffenegger of Sterling [Caviar in Sacramento, CA] said.
In France farmers use ultrasound technology to speed the process. Alan Jones, the managing director of a company called Sturgeon, which is based in Saint-Sulpice, Bordeaux, uses ultrasound scanners to determine the sex of his baerii sturgeon and to identify mature females that are ready for harvesting. (A sturgeon’s gender is not evident until the fish is 3 years old.)
Technology will either make this world cooler and cooler or our excesses will make it implode.
*And I say this as someone who has been fortunate enough to have enjoyed the earthly pleasure of foie gras (don’t hate — it was just once!).