California wants row over caviar Sturgeon fish farm seeks to challenge Russians

March 16, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It's the holy grail of aquaculture.

Just as California has challenged France in the production of fine wines, today it is preparing to challenge Russia on the very emblem of old imperial extravagance.

"Sacramento could become the caviar capital of the world," says Dafne Engstom, a Swedish caviar broker who helped set up the first California sturgeon farm.

As wild sturgeon have come under increasing pressure, a group of entrepreneurs and biologists has been working here, at three different farms, to develop an aquaculture based on sturgeon. They've figured out how to grow and sell the fish for meat. Now, they believe, they're closing in on the real goal pearly black caviar.

As with wine, the production of caviar on a farm will require time, capital investment, ideal conditions and a little bit of art.

That's where people like Tom Jahn come in or at least hope to. Mr. Jahn, a Swedish immigrant, is president of Sierra Aquafarms, the oldest and largest sturgeon farm in Sacramento. Aided by research at the University of California at Davis, Sierra has built itself into a powerhouse of sturgeon.

At its 21-acre plant, dozens of indoor tanks, sophisticated water filtration systems, robot feeders, and a staff of 19 are now turning out a million pounds of sturgeon a year about four times as much as commercial fishermen take in on the Columbia.

"It's the leading edge of the trade," says Mr. Jahn.

That a company with such an intensive capital investment Mr. Jahn won't say how much can hope to make a profit says something about the state of sturgeon today.

Right now, Sierra AquaFarms sells its fish when they've reached the age of 42 months, at about double the price for wild sturgeon but as wild sturgeon become rarer, demand for high-priced farm fish is steady. Caviar production could send profits soaring.

Sierra has been in business 11 years, and has reduced the time it takes a female sturgeon to reach maturity to eight years.

Very soon, there should be a surplus of brood stock which means they could begin harvesting a few big females for their roe. The fish eggs are washed in a special brine to create caviar; every producer has his own recipe.

"All of us will be very insignificant for a couple of years to come. But theoretically, we could produce 100 tons," says Mr. Jahn.

That's about $80 million worth.

But for the time being Sierra Aqua keeps the business going with sturgeon meat.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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