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Global Aquaculture: Sunshine caviar

British Columbia fish farmer bets on future success of white sturgeon

By Lauren Kramer
April 05, 2012

When Target Marine purchased a fish farm in Sechelt, British Columbia, in 1994, the company’s four owners thought they would be farming black cod (sablefish) and coho, chinook and Atlantic salmon. It was before the days of consolidation in the salmon-farming industry and at the time, British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast boasted around 60 salmon farms. 

Consolidation over the following 15 years reduced the number of independently owned salmon farms considerably and it made sense to consider farming another species of fish. Target Marine chose the white sturgeon, obtaining native Fraser River stock from the University of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. With the help of scientists at the University of California-Davis, they learned how to spawn the fish and began raising them in Sechelt starting in 2000. 

“Other aquaculture companies couldn’t see the value in sturgeon because the cycle of the fish from birth to maturity seemed too long,” says Justin Henry, Target Marine’s general manager. “But we saw the value. We carried on growing salmon smolts on a contract basis and decided to focus mostly on sturgeon.”

For the past century the majority of the world’s caviar has come from Caspian Sea sturgeon. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, those sturgeon stocks collapsed, declining by more than 90 percent in the last two decades, according to Henry. “We knew it would take a long time for those fish to recover.” 

While sturgeon farmers in California and Italy are farming Siberian sturgeon, which can be grown to produce caviar in just four years, Target Marine chose white sturgeon, which takes at least 11 years to mature. 

“Here in B.C., we had an opportunity with the Fraser River stock of white sturgeon, which no one else in the world is culturing,” he explains. “This species grows to between 100 and 125 kilograms, and we believe it develops eggs in the long run that will prove to be a higher quality of caviar.” 

It also produces considerably more caviar than its smaller cousin. Each female fish can produce 3.5 kilograms of caviar, and Target Marine retails the product under the brand Northern Divine for $3,000 per kilogram, says Henry, noting that sturgeon meat is also popular. The company obtained OceanWise recognition for its sturgeon meat, which is sold to Vancouver restaurateurs. By the time the female sturgeon are harvested for caviar and meat, each one can generate retail sales of $11,000 to $20,000. 

It’s not just the caviar and meat that are in demand. Some chefs have been asking for sturgeon liver, while the fish’s swim bladders produce isinglass, a clarifier for making red wine. “We’re also working to find out if the fins can act as a replacement for shark fin in some cases,” Henry says. 

The company anticipates most of the demand for its sturgeon caviar will come from overseas and is already fielding calls from companies in Russia. “We aren’t selling there yet because the quantities they want are way bigger than what we can produce,” he says. 

Target Marine’s white sturgeon has been on the menu at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver since May 2011, when the restaurant first opened. 

“It’s extremely consistent, quite a meaty fish, and it’s a sustainable product so we’re not depleting the ocean of anything,” says David Hawksworth, chef-owner. “I have lots of other choices of fish to use but I like supporting a local product and I like what they do.” 

Robert Clark, executive chef at Vancouver’s C Restaurant, features Target Marine’s caviar on his caviar menu and loves the product. 

“With the fall of the Iron Curtain, caviar production went to hell and we didn’t have access to good caviar for 10 years. Then, for the last 15 years I’ve been leading the charge for sustainability, so caviar came off our menus completely,” he says. “Now, with Northern Divine’s caviar, they’re giving our customers an opportunity to taste really good quality caviar that’s local and considered to be sustainable. For me you can’t get any better than that.” 

Once the sex of the fish has been determined the company tags each female with a traceable electronic chip that allows it to be tracked throughout its life. “This way we can observe the different temperatures and environments it occupies as it grows and matures,” Henry says. “When we produce caviar from that fish, we put a QR code on the can. Consumers can scan to find out when the fish was born, how much it weighed when it was harvested.” 

Target Marine’s biggest challenge has been that it was the first in the province to farm white sturgeon. 

“Because we were treading new ground, some of the things we required from the government were not yet in place, and we’re still going through some of those challenges,” Henry says.

There was also a learning curve when it came to early rearing of the newly hatched sturgeon. The eggs hatch six days after fertilization and the sturgeon are very immature during their first two months and have to be nurtured very carefully. 

“There was a high mortality rate in the beginning,” says Henry. “Our initial goal was 50 percent survival, but with some practice we’ve been able to rear some sturgeon groups with up to 90 percent survival.” 

White sturgeon farming requires patience, and lots of it. Of the 2,000 sturgeon that Target Marine first began farming in 2000, only 100 have been harvested thus far, while the rest have not yet produced their eggs. “To tell if they’re mature we do a biopsy of the fish, make a small incision and take out a sample of eggs from the fish’s ovary,” he explains. “But they don’t all mature at the same time. Some might take up to 15 years.”

In anticipation of their maturity, Target Marine is building an on-site caviar processing plant and relying on income from its salmon smolts. The hope is that as 2,000 more sturgeon are harvested over the coming five years, they will constitute more of the company’s revenues. As that starts to happen, Target Marine’s salmon broodstock will be reduced from 40 percent of aquaculture operations to a mere 10 percent. 

For the company’s 18 staff, working with the farm’s 40,000 white sturgeon has been an amazing experience, Henry says. “You get inside the tank and their behavior is quite different to other species we’ve worked with. They don’t scatter when you come to the tank — they’re curious. They are prehistoric animals and if you learn how to handle them properly, they can be really calm and easy to work with. But if you’re not skilled you can get knocked over because they’re huge and powerful fish. Unless you know what you’re doing, it can be dangerous.”

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in Richmond, British Columbia 
April 2012 - SeaFood Business

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