Giant beluga farm that could save the fish that lays the golden eggs
By Paul Brown, Environment Correspondent, in Kazakhstan
The Guardian - United Kingdom; Dec 02, 2002
In an effort to save the fish that lays the golden eggs, businessmen are planning to build a giant fish farm on the banks of the river Ural in Kazakhstan, beginning for the first time the commercial production of beluga sturgeon for its caviar.
The project is both financially perilous and fraught with the risk of failure, but the fate of the beluga hangs in the balance and the entrepreneurs know that the potential rewards are great. A consortium made up of the local canning factory and South Korean and American businessmen hopes to farm sturgeon to provide the world's most expensive food - currently worth pounds 8,000 a kilo.
Although the sturgeon has previously been artificially reared in hatcheries and then released into the sea, it has never been farmed from cradle to grave. Under the new proposal the fish would never actually see the wild.
The odd-looking but remarkable fish has survived in the Caspian sea since the dinosaurs, but it is being hunted to extinction by poachers who can earn more smuggling fish eggs to America than they can from a similar weight of cocaine. The three other species of commercially fished sturgeon in the Caspian seem likely to suffer the same fate.
International trade in beluga (Huso huso) has just been banned but even so experts on the Caspian, which produces 95% of the world's caviar, believe the combination of poaching and oil exploitation in the fish's last natural breeding ground will still push the species to extinction.
Despite this, the entrepreneurs believe it can still be saved. The beluga normally does not breed until it is 8 to 12 years old but businessmen cannot wait that long. Instead beluga will be raised in the riverside farms in increasing levels of salinity, to simulate being at sea, and then injected with hormones when they are seven years old to induce them to produce eggs. When they have done so they will be slit open and the eggs used to feed the canning factory.
Other less valuable species of sturgeon, which do not take so long to mature, will suffer the same fate after four years.
Officially, the authorities in Kazakhstan, the central Asian republic which is the last natural breeding place of the beluga, say all is well and that stocks are improving. But the evidence is otherwise.
The beluga, like salmon from the Atlantic, swim from the saltwater Caspian, 1,000 miles up the freshwater river Ural to breed each spring. The catch of the pregnant females, 10% of their body weight being caviar, has dropped from 103,000 tonnes in 1977 to 5,000 tonnes in 2002.
Under the Soviet Union, it was realised that all was not well with sturgeon populations. The Soviets' building of dams on the Volga river, the other great breeding ground for sturgeon, prevented the spring migrations.
To solve the problem scientists built a series of farms where sturgeon eggs were artificially fertilised and the tiny fingerlings released into the Caspian. When there was strict Soviet control of the Caspian the millions of sturgeon released in this way were enough to keep the population stable, but since 1991 and the free-for-all among the five now independent countries that border the sea, sturgeon numbers have crashed. Many of the immature sturgeon are netted and sold for meat before they have time to mature.
Abish Beckeshev, once head of the department for the central scientific research institute on sturgeon, said "catches will soon be zero".
Professor Beckeshev retired when his institute was abolished through lack of funds once the Soviet Union collapsed, but he is still known as a "walking encyclopedia on sturgeon".
He believes the chances of the venture being successful are slim. "In the old days when we started the breeding programme in hatcheries we had plenty of beluga, lots of genetic stock. Now they are in such short supply the sperm of other sturgeon, not beluga, are used to fertilise the eggs. We get mutants, hybrids, freaks. Who knows what they will turn out like when they mature."
Semyon Khvan, vice president of the Atyrau Balyk cannery, is confident all is well. "We are being very careful to conserve stocks, catching only 10 to 12% of the estimated stock. It is all carefully controlled. Figures in the west are all out of date, the stock is increasing."
Mr Khvan is pinning his future production on farmed beluga caviar, all of which would be reared in tanks. "We are confident we have the financial backing and the scientists who can make it work. Caviar is very valuable, we can wait seven years to get our investment back."
была ещё шикарная статья в глянцевом приложении к ft, но я её пока не нашел в интернете... там есть много забавных (и грустных, конечно) наблюдений из жизни "икрометателей"...