How one Maritimes farm is bringing back an endangered fish – and its caviar

Chef Michael Stadtlander holding a rare Breviro sturgeon at the Breviro Caviar Farm in St. Andrew’'s by the Sea, New Brunswick. May 30, 2011. (Jennifer MacLean)

Chef Michael Stadtlander holding a rare Breviro sturgeon at the Breviro Caviar Farm in St. Andrew’'s by the Sea, New Brunswick. May 30, 2011.
(Jennifer MacLean)


The democratization of caviar is under way.

The hotbed of this revolution is Pennfield, N.B., home to the world’s only company licensed to produce and sell an ultra-exclusive variety of caviar. Extracted from the shortnose sturgeon – an endangered, dinosaur-era fish known as acipenser brevirostrum  it’s a delicacy made from the salted roe of a breed with just one population in the Canadian wild. The species is so imperiled that international trade regulators have blocked commercial sales for more than 30 years.

One Maritime fish farm, Breviro Caviar, has spent millions over the past decade coaxing thousands of these sturgeon to maturity. With a stint in receivership and a change in ownership behind it, the company is finally embarking on a global rollout of the world’s first farmed-raised, legally sourced shortnose caviar.

Trade bans and the difficulty of raising the large fish indoors have deterred mass attempts of offshore sturgeon farming, making it an innovative form of aquaculture. But caviar connoisseurs are predicting the niche is about to widen.

“All the cruise liners and airplanes will carry it again,” said Steven Omidi of The Caviar Centre, a Toronto-based vendor that sells products from around the world in-store and online.

Farmed caviar is comparatively more affordable than its wild cousin. Caviar from the wild beluga, the highest value sturgeon fished from the Caspian Sea, rings up at $1,150 for a 100-gram tin. Breviro sells 100 grams of its rare shortnose product, made from the descendants of wild sturgeon pulled from the St. John River, for between $300 to $600.

The company plans to keep supply limited by processing a maximum of 1,800 fish a year (each sturgeon can yield 200,000 eggs). But at least one nearby competitor is also raising the shortnose and is in the process of securing permission to sell their roe.

Already, some of Canada’s most renowned kitchen masters are endorsing Breviro’s product. Robert Clark, who runs C Restaurant in Vancouver, has served it; Food Network star Michael Smith used it at last year’s winter Olympics. They’ve been hooked by its taste but also by its sustainability: Scientists argue that increased demand for farmed product will help regenerate wild stocks.

“I’m a dreamer,” said Breviro principal Jonathan Barry. “But if we’re able to revive a species ... that would be full-circle sustainability,” he said. “Who would give up that fight?”

From saloon grub...

For all the luxury that caviar connotes, it wasn’t always an exclusive delicacy. Egyptians and Phoenicians learned to make caviar by 2400 BC to help bridge long trips at sea. Bas-relief portraits at the Sakkara necropolis in Egypt depict fishermen mining their catch for eggs; King Edward II proclaimed sturgeon “royal fish,” launching a global appetite for caviar.

By the 1900s, the United States and Canada were also producing loads of it. Albany, N.Y., was once known as ‘Sturgeontown’ because the Hudson River was so clogged with sturgeon that the fish was dubbed “Albany beef” and sold for pennies a pound. Much like beer nuts, caviar was a mainstay in saloons; patrons hoped it would increase drinkers’ thirst. silver spoon delicacy

The rare and endangered status of sturgeon have made them the most lucrative class in the sea. They rank above the endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna, which sells for around $1,000 per pound.

As the popularity of caviar escalated, the drain on wild populations became obvious, particularly in the Caspian and Black Seas, home to some of the world’s most prized sturgeon, beluga and osetra. This only deepened interest in U.S. and Canadian lake sturgeon, which yield roe so similar to their Russian counterparts that it was often labelled as such and shipped back to Europe.

“[The fishermen]came over from Russia and Germany and just wiped out everything on the East Coast,” said Boyd Kynard, a U.S.-based migratory fish research biologist. “Then they went to the West Coast and wiped out everything over there.”

Canada’s shortnose population in the Saint John River was not exempt.

“The population just crashed,” Mr. Kynard said. “These are very long-lived fish. You cannot over-harvest a long-lived fish. They have no ability to respond to over-harvesting.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global trade regulator, listed the sturgeon on its most endangered register, Appendix 1, in 1975. But poachers still target areas with dwindling populations.

“They just go there and set gill nets for three days, catch 30 or 40 and leave,” Mr. Kynard said. “You just find the heads along the side of the road.”

How caviar is raised

Though an ugly, scale-less, bottom feeder, the shortnose is, in theory, the perfect breed to raise. Full size, the fish only stretches about one metre (other sturgeon species grow up to 5½ metres).

Given the proper licenses, which can be acquired by proving caviar for sale is two generations removed from wild brood stock, raising cultured shortnose is entirely tenable. But several New Brunswick businessmen who have attempted runs at sturgeon aquaculture have been felled by the stubborn breed.

The main reason? One sturgeon might produce 200,000 eggs in a cycle (making her worth more than $10,000) but it can take more than 10 years for the fish to mature.

“The question is: ‘Do you survive long enough to make it?’” said Donald Breau, a Pennfield entrepreneur who started the first shortnose farm but struggled to come up with the $1-million a year he needed to keep the company running. Last year, it went under and was fished out by the principals of what is now Breviro.

Aside from cash flow, technology was also a problem. The mechanics of sturgeon farming have not yet been perfected.

“It’s not something that you read about in books,” said Cornel Ceapa, a scientist and owner of Acadian Sturgeon, the company waiting on their own CITES shortnose license.

Still, scientists monitoring the farming efforts hope that sturgeon aquaculture takes off.

“If aquaculture does well by producing caviar ... [and]the products are equivalent or better than what you find in the wild, people will see the value in this,” said Matthew Litvak, an ecologist at Mount Allison University. “If they market this ... wild stocks will do just fine.”