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Retire the fish: inside the world’s first no-kill caviar farm

Retire the fish: inside the world’s first no-kill caviar farm

by Hugh Thomas 01 March 2017

Hugh Thomas pays a visit to Yorkshire caviar farm KC Caviar, where the team have developed a way of harvesting the eggs without harming the fish.

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It might be news to you, but wild sturgeon – the kind of fish we typically depend on to produce roe, ergo caviar – are one of the most endangered species on the planet. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says over eighty-five percent of sturgeon species are at risk of extinction. Sixteen variations of the fish, such as the well-recognised beluga, have reached critically low numbers. To give you some context, that’s a status shared with the likes of the south China tiger and black rhino.

It’s no coincidence that, as the demand for caviar increases, so does the number of environmentally-sound caviar farms. The low numbers of sturgeon account for why caviar is synonymous with extravagance – the fewer there are to produce roe, the more difficult it is to obtain.

Today some sturgeon are still unfortunately poached in the wild, but ever since the first caviar farms sprung up in the early 1990s there has been an alternative source. Today, all farms in Europe work to rigorous standards set out by the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), and there has been a worldwide ban on fishing sturgeon since 1998, to allow those in the wild to repopulate. If you were to buy a tin of caviar today – especially one produced in Britain or Europe – it would come from a sustainable caviar farm instead of a wild, endangered fish.

Killing the fish has traditionally been the means to harvest its roe, even though this isn’t strictly necessary – sturgeon, like any fish, release their eggs naturally. So you can see why a family-run farm in north Yorkshire, KC Caviar, is challenging the status quo. Having recently been granted a ‘no-kill’ license by the Alfred Wegener Institute – the first of its kind in the world – the farm is in the business of producing caviar without having to kill the fish beforehand.

Beluga
Beluga sturgeon are at risk of extinction and farms like KC Caviar are a vital part of preventing this from happening
John and Mark
John and Mark Addey are having to learn as they go, as no one has run a caviar farm before which keeps the sturgeon alive

‘We’ve just started taking our first eggs,’ says John Addey, who along with son Mark wanted to build something around the idea of helping conserve sturgeon. Naturally, a caviar farm was the solution. ‘Traditionally, in the spring the eggs are fully mature, ready for stripping. At that point they will kill the fish, cut it open, and take the eggs from the ovaries. Sometimes people cut the fish open, collect the eggs, then stitch them back up again. But the fish die anyway. We’re more in control of the process here. Eggs aren’t pulled from the ovary – they’re released by the fish.’

In order to keep the fish in an environment they’re comfortable with to regularly produce eggs, John and his team need to fine-tune the ambient nature of the farm to match the sturgeon’s native habitat. This involves emulating the seasons, from changing the amount of light the sturgeon receive each day, to the temperature of their water.

The fact many wild sturgeon die before the end of their natural lifespan – and 'no-kill' sturgeon farming is at the moment somewhat novel – means John is encountering a host of unknowns with this new undertaking. I ask him when he expects his sturgeon to stop producing eggs. ‘We don’t know that. We’re presuming, because no one’s done tests on it – all fish have been killed for their eggs.’

The same goes for taste. ‘There may well be some difference, but we don’t know yet. As the fish get older, it could be that the eggs get larger. Each fish could have a different taste.’ Texturally at least, John’s caviar will be ever so slightly different. As opposed to roe forced out of the fish, the eggs will be much softer, and so will need to be pasteurised and stabilised with added preservatives before they can be consumed. ‘It doesn’t add anything to the taste,’ assures John.

Seeing as John and Mark’s initial aim was to help conserve sturgeon, at some point in the future they’ve got to worry about what to do with the fish once they stop producing roe. ‘When we retire them, we can either build a lake somewhere in the UK purely for retirement fish, or send them to designated protected areas for sturgeon in places like Hungary and Bulgaria,’ says John. ‘There’s the World Sturgeon [Conservation] Society also trying to reinstate sturgeon into certain areas.’

People have said if you’re not killing the fish it should be cheaper. But we’re looking after the fish and certainly giving them a five-star treatment, which they wouldn’t get in the wild.

John Addey

You might be wondering if it takes away anything from the eventual cost to you. Then again, you have to remember John’s trying to run a farm, not a sanctuary. ‘We’ve specifically set the price to the average for the UK. People have said if you’re not killing the fish it should be cheaper. But we’re looking after the fish and certainly giving them a five-star treatment, which they wouldn’t get in the wild.’ KC’s caviar starts at £100, which is about the same price as the cheapest 30g tin from Fortnum’s.

Of course, there are other sides to the argument. Exmoor Caviar in Devon has been producing roe for the past three years using traditional methods, supplying Michelin-starred restaurants wanting the finest caviar but with a more local appeal. 'Traditional methods of processing for us will always be better, at least with the technology as it is,' says managing director Harry Ferguson. 'Milking or stripping in our opinion and on the advice of the some of the leading fish veterinarians in Europe does more damage to the fish than humane slaughter. Also, the final product is completely different and no-kill farms do not tell of the vast chemicals used to restructure the roe, which when dropped naturally by the sturgeon is ready to be fertilised and inedible in terms of what people expect from caviar.'

So while buyers might not be any less out of pocket, they do now have a choice on how their caviar is harvested. What’s more, it means vegetarians can, perhaps for the first time, experience caviar – John says he will have chefs among his clientele, but the eventual product will be geared towards the uninitiated. ‘We’ll be supplying restaurants,’ says John. ‘But it will be sold I think to people who’ve not tried it before.’

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