By Ignacio Ortega
Moscow, Dec 21 (EFE).- Ultra-modern fish farming techniques could spell the end of the practice of slaughtering the prehistoric and protected sturgeon fish for its much-prized caviar, once the food of the tsars.
“Sturgeons survived dinosaurs, but not man. Now, we produce both pure and hybrid species,” says Svetlana Kasaeva, deputy director of production at Aquatir sturgeon complex in Tiraspol, capital of the Moldovan breakaway state of Transnistria.
Russia has long ceased to be the world’s largest producer of legal caviar but it remains the source of the sturgeon gene pool, as well as the more than 20 sister species, from which the best caviar is extracted.
Taking advantage of an ancient spawning method in the Dniester River, Aquatir started breeding sturgeons from the Caspian and Black Sea in 2006. Fifteen years later, it is home to the largest man-made reserve of beluga sturgeons in Europe.
“We have about 450 tons of fish, one-third of which are beluga,” Kasaeva, the specialist from the Russian port of Astrakhan, tells Efe.
The fish farm consists of a total of 11 units, where beluga sturgeons grow to weigh as much as 200 kilograms, each of which can produce over 15 kg of black caviar in a cycle.
The fish, which have a delicate immune system, become more disease prone at the age of one, which is why they are kept in special pools.
“The water must be cold, the same as room temperature, for the sturgeon to fulfill its natural functions. Sturgeons hibernate. There are scientists who consider that hibernation is not obligatory, but I can say, out of knowledge, that without it the quality of the caviar is worse,” Kasaeva explains.
This business is not for those interested in making easy and fast money. Sturgeons reach sexual maturity at 10-12 years of age.
“You no longer have to kill the sturgeon. It is a worldwide trend. Sturgeons are on the Red List (of protected species), so they must be protected. Their fishing is prohibited all over the planet,” she adds.
After they reach sexual maturity, the sturgeon produces roe every 3-4 years, a period that has been reduced to 2.5 years thanks to the technology available at Aquatir. That is why killing the fish now is not only inhumane but also unprofitable.
“Once the eggs are harvested, the sturgeon feeds, regains strength, and reproduces again. Taking into account that they live for about 140 years, imagine how much caviar they can produce in their lifetime,” the expert says.
Specialists analyze mature sturgeons one by one by extracting caviar samples before harvesting their roe.
“It’s a jeweler’s job,” says one of the managers.
They decide whether the sturgeon in question is ready to hibernate.
The fish is so heavy that it takes six men to lift it out of the pool, grab it, and restrain it to the operating table with special belts.
“The animal does not suffer. A specialist opens its belly at the genital area and removes the caviar. The wound heals quickly and the sturgeon does not suffer any traumas,” he points out.
A 50-gram jar of beluga caviar, whose roe is about 3-4 millimeters in diameter, costs around 80 euros (around $90) in a store in Tiraspol. EFE