By Justin Henry

April 26, 2018.

The prehistoric looking sturgeons have been around since the Late Cretaceous (100.5 million years ago - 66 million years ago).  Unfortunately, like countless other fish stocks around the world, they met their match against humans and their rapidly advancing fishing methods and technology.  Long-lived fish like sturgeon, which can live for more than 150 years, are incapable of standing up to this intense fishing pressure.  In the late 1800’s, this unrelenting fishing pressure nearly wiped out most of the sturgeon populations in North America.  A century later, these populations have still not recovered. 

During the 1900’s, most of the world’s sturgeon (and caviar) came from the Caspian Sea.  The sturgeon catch was falling during the Soviet era, and following the collapse of the USSR was the collapse of the sturgeon due to a loss of control of the fishery, poaching and habitat protection.  The Caspian sturgeon stocks were decimated and went from supplying all of the world’s caviar to almost zero in just 20 years. 

Have we learned our lesson?  Not yet.  There are a few countries left that still allow a commercial fishery for sturgeon, including Canada and the United States, though they are unlikely to last long due to modernizing regulations or a deficiency of fish. 

The great undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau said that “we must plant the sea and herd its animals as farmers instead of hunters.  That is what civilization is all about - farming replacing hunting.”  He could not have been more right when it comes to sturgeon.

Due to rising global demand for seafood, declining wild fish stocks, as well as advancing technology, aquaculture is the fastest growing food production sector in the world. 

Aquaculture of sturgeons has enjoyed considerable advances and success.  However, sturgeon farming does not come without its unique challenges.  Some strains of sturgeon do not sexually mature in the wild until they are more than 30 years old and may not, at first glance, seem like a fish that anyone would want to farm for an egg harvest.  Though much shorter than in the wild, some species under certain culture conditions take 15 years or more to mature.  This long maturation cycle leads to both financial and research challenges.  Furthermore, the longer lived species can reach extremely large sizes in aquaculture, with some fish recorded at more than 140 kg, which required new safe fish handling techniques to be developed.

Despite these challenges, the growth of sturgeon culture has been rapid for several reasons. 

  • The shortfall in supply from wild stocks has led to increased prices, making caviar one of the world’s highest priced foods. 

  • The meat quality of sturgeon is excellent, more similar to meat than fish, and can also hold a high value. 

  • Sturgeons are amenable to culture and unlike many species; sturgeons don’t seem to be impaired by handling. 

  • Sturgeons have a wide range in temperature tolerance, which is a most desirable trait for commercial aquaculture.

  • Sturgeons have a flexible production cycle, so if the market for sturgeon meat is low, harvest can be delayed without risking meat quality.

  • Sturgeon aquaculture expertise and know-how has advanced significantly over the past two decades. 

Since sturgeon farming first developed in the 1980’s, more than 1000 sturgeon farms have emerged globally, implementing a wide range of culture techniques and technologies.  Since the 1980’s, the legal caviar supply has switched from almost entirely wild to almost entirely farm-raised over this period.

Many farms have not survived due to the long lead time to caviar production and increasing global supply.  As with the salmon industry a decade ago, the time seems ripe for a consolidation of farms already producing caviar, including some of the larger and unique farms, to bring together higher volume, niche products, and broad expertise.