Caviar dreams come true in Uruguay: Outsourced aquaculture

by Dave


WSJ Magazine » Print

after 30 years of supplying the South Atlantic Soviet fishing fleet with equipment, Walter Alcalde, a Uruguayan businessman, amassed a list of government contacts that would make James Bond seem like an espionage intern. And during the final days of that empire in 1989, one of these contacts, a captain from a vessel in a Russian fleet, cryptically relayed once top-secret information to his friend. Instead of a lead on nuclear missile silos, he gave Alcalde a fishing tip.

The Russians, he revealed, conducted comprehensive satellite surveys of the geography and watersheds of Uruguay. Their research made a bold declaration: That Uruguay was the best place on the planet to raise sturgeon for their roe. Known as ossetra caviar, the glistening black orbs are valued around the world as culinary pearls of fortunes and luxury.

Not only was the supply dry, but the potential change in hemispheres concerned fishery biologists. Sturgeon, one of the oldest and largest fish species with fossils dated to 200 million years ago, are native only to the northern hemisphere. Potential diseases, disorientation and unforeseen conditions of the water could easily kill these delicate giants. The idea of farmed caviar seemed to be a bust before a fin touched the water.

Both concerns abated when a Russian contact found a supply of fertilized eggs and shipped it to Uruguay. The health of the herd surprised even the scientists. “The mortality and disease rate have been extremely low,” says Graham Gaspard, a “ski bum” turned caviar mogul who serves as the CEO of their Black River Caviar company.

And with technology—in this case, microchips embedded in the fish’s snout—the farmers accurately monitor each individual fish’s egg development. Part of the expense of wild caviar comes from the random nature of sampling fish. “Fishermen don’t know what stage of pregnancy the fish are in. They have to kill so many to get enough for a high-quality tin,” Gaspard says. With such close monitoring, no fish is killed unless it’s ready for harvest.

This delicate attention to a sturgeon’s biography is what attracts chefs like Ford. “It’s important to trace the source,” Ford says. “Anytime you do that, you’re more respectful of what you’re working with.” And at Black River, they’re doing things properly, he says.

And with technology—in this case, microchips embedded in the fish’s snout—the farmers accurately monitor each individual fish’s egg development. Part of the expense of wild caviar comes from the random nature of sampling fish. “Fishermen don’t know what stage of pregnancy the fish are in. They have to kill so many to get enough for a high-quality tin,” Gaspard says. With such close monitoring, no fish is killed unless it’s ready for harvest.

This delicate attention to a sturgeon’s biography is what attracts chefs like Ford. “It’s important to trace the source,” Ford says. “Anytime you do that, you’re more respectful of what you’re working with.” And at Black River, they’re doing things properly, he says.

At the Uruguayan facility, the water moves by the pull of gravity as it flows from the expansive Lake Baygorria to the Río Negro. “Our fish never swim in the same water twice,” Alcalde says. More than 50 million gallons move naturally through the farm daily. The Alcaldes built a system of canals alongside the Río Negro to replicate a spawning river and the natural migration of a sturgeon from the feeding grounds of a lake or sea to an upstream egg drop.

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