Roe to Go

Deep Bay Marine Field Station | BCBusiness
Vancouver Island University’s new Deep Bay Marine Field Station supplies the sturgeon eggs that spawn Fraser River white caviar.

The collapse of Russian stock spells opportunity for a B.C. caviar producer

Raising sturgeon to produce caviar is not for the impatient; some have compared it to planting a forest to start a paper mill. However, Target Marine Hatcheries Ltd., based in Sechelt, took a gamble back in 1998, and last year it harvested 300 kg of Northern Divine caviar from 89 fish.

The company received sturgeon stock from Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, and began, through a lot of trial and error, to farm the ancient fish in a closed-containment aquaculture operation. Justin Henry, general manager of Target Marine, believes his company is the first and only hatchery in Canada to raise white sturgeon, and the only hatchery in the world growing and producing caviar from the Fraser River white sturgeon.

Shell Shock: B.C.’s Aquaculture Industry

B.C.’s aquaculture industry is flowing in the right direction, as global demand for seafood rises while wild supply falls. But the industry’s success as a global player is precariously balanced upon stringent regulatory controls that can drown the whole thing.

“We know all the caviar farmers in North America,” says Henry. “Other farmers producing white sturgeon are taking brood stock from the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, where it is native. Some was shipped to Italy where it is now produced, but no one else is producing the Fraser River strain of white sturgeon.”

Henry attributes Target Marine’s success mainly to timing, and the dire straits of wild caviar. “We got into culturing sturgeon just as the Caspian Sea stocks began to collapse,” he explains. “In 1991, after the U.S.S.R. fell its fisheries also fell apart, which paved the way for us.”

Just as for oysters, the specific oceanic environment, or “merroir,” influences the caviar’s quality. “Caviar is cultured in different environments—feed and water types, care and nutrition and species and strain can influence the caviar’s quality,” says Kelly Reed, Northern Divine’s “caviar meister.” She first worked with salmon eggs, and has trained at sturgeon hatcheries around the world.

While most of the world is farming Siberian sturgeon to produce caviar in four years Target Marine’s sturgeon were 11 years old before they were ready for harvest. The Fraser River sturgeon is three times the size of white sturgeon in the U.S., so it makes for a higher caviar yield. “We also prefer this sturgeon because it takes such a long time to develop the eggs, which results in a superior product,” says Henry.

Today Target Marine’s precious beads are popping up on local restaurant menus and the operation is sustainable—environmentally and economically. In addition to selling the eggs, Target Marine sells sturgeon meat to local high-end Vancouver restaurants such as Blue Water Café, Hawksworth and C Restaurant. The caviar isn’t cheap at $155 for 50 grams, but it is within reach: overnight delivery is available anywhere in Canada.