Overfishing and loss of habitat have led to a severe decline in the sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea, resulting in a downturn in the production of caviar. In Israel, Galilee Caviar, a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms, has undertaken an ambitious project to produce caviar from sturgeon raised in fish farms in Israel. The project has had significant success, as Aaron Priel reports.

Galilee Caviar, a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms in Kibbutz Dan in the Upper Galilee, Israel, has begun to produce caviar from sturgeon roe. The product, intended for export, has been developed with the support of the chief scientist at the Ministry of Agriculture, Professor Dan Levanon, following extensive research costing US$1.33m.

Sturgeon, which mainly live in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, produce roe when reaching maturity at the age of 14. The Israeli research project led to a method to bring maturity forward to seven years. Since sturgeon do not naturally exist in Israel, Galilee Caviar imported sturgeons from Russia and raised them in special fish farms at Kibbutz Dan. The first 20 kg of caviar produced by Galilee Caviar was sent to several leading chefs in Europe, who proclaimed the Israeli-made caviar was of top quality. Plans are now afoot to produce 100 kg of caviar by the end of this year, and during the first stage, to produce 4000 kg of caviar a year, to be sold at $500 per kg, expecting annual revenues to reach $2m.

“The research began about 11 years ago with the idea to find a way to grow sturgeon artificially in fish ponds,” according to Levanon. He explained that historically, almost all of the caviar originates from sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea close to the former USSR and Iran. “Since the break up of the USSR, the hazards of over fishing, habitat loss and pollution, there has been a dramatic decline in sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea, resulting in diminishing production of caviar,” Levanon added.

Imminent threat of extinction

By 1998, the decline was so pronounced that the international committee known as CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) indicated that without international actions, “there is an imminent threat of extinction of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea”, as reported in Israel21c. The report noted that this action has led to tight regulation and control of the international trade of caviar from all species worldwide.

Dan Fish Farms has specialised for years in developing new species for aquaculture, fish vaccines and vaccination systems, fish feeds and feeding experiments. Avshalom Hurvitz, a biologist at Dan Fish Farms, studying for his Ph.D. degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, and who is a member of Kibbutz Dan, commented that the changing nature of the caviar industry due to the shortage of sturgeon “prompted us to launch the Sturgeon Project in 1994”. The project’s aim was to monitor and find a method to control the maturation of the female sturgeon, carried out by Galilee Caviar. For that purpose, the newly established subsidiary imported a small amount of sturgeons from Russia and raised them in the fish farms at the Kibbutz, Hurvitz explained.

The focus of the project was to learn how to grow the fish artificially, according to Levanon. He added that this has taken the bulk of the time, growing fish artificially instead of in a river. “We have fish ponds in the north with water taken from the Dan River; the optimal temperatures is not higher than 23 degrees Celsius. After many years, we have succeeded in this stage,” he remarked. The next step in the process was to speed up the fertility stage in which the female sturgeon produced the eggs from which the caviar is made. For the last two years, the fish farm produced caviar from the female sturgeons after they reached the age of seven years. As noted, the goal is to produce 4000 kg of caviar by the end 2007.

Galilee Caviar company is now developing a protocol of production related to optimal food and optimal temperature, thus enabling the sturgeon to grow faster and reach a fertile age earlier than in nature. Dan Fish Farms raises several kinds of fresh water fish, mainly rainbow trout, amounting to 350 tonnes a year, and about 200 tonnes of carp.