Sunday, August 15, 2010

Idea Hatches for Carolina Caviar

Gliding through North American waters for 4,000 years, the behemoth sturgeon is like no other fish. The 600-pound prehistoric wonder once roamed the coastal waters of our state, feeding our inhabitants. Now, all species of sturgeon are either threatened or endangered in North Carolina, and indeed worldwide.

And caviar – the roe, or eggs, of mature sturgeon – has become increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain worldwide as well. But historic Happy Valley, near Lenoir, is poised to go beyond the sad legend of Tom Dula. It has one of only three aquaculture farms in the United States culturing sturgeon to produce this gourmet delicacy.

Russian Sturgeon swim in tanks at LaPaz.
Source: North Carolina State University.
Nestled in the mountains of North Carolina amidst the snaking roads of Happy Valley, a legion of 17,000 sturgeon swarm in large tanks of water at LaPaz, LLC – the nascent sturgeon farm is the culmination of four enterprising friends and two North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers and extension agents taking cautious and calculated, albeit risky steps.

One of the LaPaz founders, Joe Doll, witnessed the lucrative caviar market first-hand when he – as an MGM Grand airline pilot – flew movie stars and rocks stars in and out of Russia several years ago. He was served caviar on the plane, just as he and three other friends were fishing for ideas to occupy their time and energy in retirement.

“This is where the idea for the sturgeon farm spawned from,” Doll says.

So, in 2004 Doll, now CEO and president of LaPaz, with the late businessman, Bill White who always had an interest in aquaculture, and two other friends embarked on turning their sturgeon farming business plan into reality. They consulted with Keith Oakley, president of the NC Agriculture Foundation, to set up a business and nonprofit research demonstration project to benefit both the entrepreneurs and NCSU aquaculture research.

“We knew it would be a long-term investment, and highly risky,” said Doll. So he set out to get expert advice from Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, a fish biologist, and Dr. Tom Losordo, an aquaculture engineer – both experts in their fields – who have helped about 100 aquaculture facilities become established in North Carolina as part of their mission for the NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As with most bureaucracies, the permitting process to obtain the three species of sturgeon moved at a slow pace for two years. To get the sturgeon, they also had to get permits or gain review from six state, federal and international agencies.

Dr. Losordo and Dr. Hinshaw.
Source: North Carolina State University.

“If we can get through all this paperwork, raising the fish will be easy” Hinshaw told Doll.

Next came finding sturgeon broodstock. They located three different species in the forms of fertilized eggs, fingerlings and juveniles. About 6,000 Atlantic juveniles including Shortnose came from a commercial fisherman on the St. Johns river in Brunswick, Canada. They then obtained about 500 Siberian fingerlings from Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida who purchased them from a consortium of fish farms in Germany. And finally, they brought in 10,000 Russian fertilized eggs from the same German consortium.

Currently, a U.S. market for farmed Atlantic sturgeon caviar is nonexistent, making it hard to know what the domestic market value could be. Losordo says although it’s good to diversify, they’ll have to “thrash” out which two species are going to be more profitable.

Caviar is marketed for its unique, regional characteristics, and LaPaz could sell caviar from, say, the Appalachian Mountains, The Great Smokies or North Carolina. A representative from Petrossian – perhaps the largest caviar broker and distributor in the world – recently traveled to LaPaz to explore future purchases and expressed an interest in what they considered to be a minimum quantity of 2.5 tons to 3 tons of caviar a year, for purchase from one region, much like wine is purchased. With this interest from the caviar broker standpoint, the LaPaz group and members of the research demonstration project see potential room to establish more than just this one facility in the local area.

The LaPaz farm sits in a valley
in the mountains of North Carolina.
Doll, as current farm manager, runs the facility with sterling efficiency and oversees construction with the swiftness of an engineering master. Anchored in a valley, the long, red, utilitarian buildings sit in the midst of a mountainous vista capped off with a Carolina blue sky. The total farm acreage covers about 50 acres, with two crop fields surrounding two buildings and plans for a third building.

The first metal building, damp and buzzing with the hum of pumps, houses the juvenile sturgeons’ nursery, a lab area and 12 tanks of adult sturgeon separated by size and species. Situated in two long rows of 20,000-gallon capacity tanks, the adult tanks have dedicated filtration systems and feeders dropping pellets that sink to the bottom for the benthic sturgeons. The fish swarm to the food, winding back and forth across the circumference of the large corrugated steel tanks. Most aquaculture uses fiberglass tanks, but Doll and his inventive friends designed a steel tank that is far more cost-efficient.

The LaPaz grow-out facility
houses 12 tanks of 17,000 sturgeon.

“We designed the tanks, and we designed a machine to make the tanks. I see the potential for building five to six of these sturgeon farms in North Carolina using the steel tanks,” said Doll.
The sturgeons coast through the water in a seemingly deliberate manner, as if they’re on a mission, maybe for food, maybe to escape. Or perhaps they’re searching for any semblance of a natural environment – a rock here or a log there. Though in constant motion, if you place your hand in the water, they will approach and rest their head in your hand, living up to their docile reputation.

Sturgeon fish are docile in nature.
Source: North Carolina State University.
In addition to tank design, effective wastewater systems are essential for marketable sturgeon. Before purchasing caviar, a wholesaler will taste test the roe to determine the price. The clearer and purer the water, the better the meat and roe. The systems clean the water well, but solids and other compounds in the water can still cause off-flavor. A graduate student’s experimentation on two tanks is yielding positive results to remedy this. “Our goal is to clear the water of the off-flavor compounds, but before we clear the off-flavor compounds, we have to clear the water of solids,” said Losordo.

Close your eyes standing next to the filtration systems, and you may think you’re in the middle of a factory on top of a waterfall with the thumping and swashing. The water throttles through a three-stage water treatment system a rate of 300 gallons per minute, filtering the total volume of a two-tank system once per hour. To remove solid waste, first, a “sludge collector” removes solids from the tank, and then a drum screen filter cleans out the finer solids. Then onto a moving bed biofilter for nitrification and aeration and through a downflow bubble contactor where pure oxygen gas is added.

As a research demonstration project, one filter system is experimentally designed to reduce off-flavor using ultraviolet (UV) and ozone, and in those two tanks, the water is substantially clearer. Rick Jones, the graduate student working with Dr. Losordo, is researching how to clear the water using an ultraviolet sterilizer to remove algae or bacteria and ozone to burn off the off-flavor chemicals dissolved in the water. “Water systems in Europe treat their water with ozone, and in the states we treat our water with chlorine. Ozone is much healthier,” says Losordo, “You’re starting to see more cities looking at ozone for drinking water.”

Ten percent of the total water leaves the building as effluent and is pumped into a huge geotextile bag where it undergoes a polymer-induced chemical process. The solid waste mixes with the polymer and basically releases the water to travel through a rock bed and be pumped into a holding pond. Farmers needing nutrients as a soil amendment to their farms apply the highly organic sludge in the bag, in a semi-dry form, to crop land in agronomic rates. Since much of the water leaves through evapotransportation, none of it actually leaves the farm.

The LaPaz farm, surrounded by crops and mountains.
The aquaculture system has virtually no environmental impact. With farms using the water, the only exports from the site are the crop that is harvested by the farmer, the sludge, the caviar and the sturgeon meat. According to Oakley, “We’ve got a very good system for dealing with the waste. We have a 40-acre field behind us, and the water that goes in there is pretty close to drinkable quality. That, with the dry product you spray on the fields and use as fertilizer, it’s a nice little cycle, very environmentally friendly.”

Losordo describes what they have developed at NC State University as a conglomeration of technology he has seen all around the world. Doll certainly appreciates the researchers’ input: “Before we saw Drs. Hinshaw and Losordo as advisors; now, they’re more involved, though indirectly, as our partners. We definitely need their help. There’s just so much to learn about this fish; it’s such an ancient fish. And, every time we have an issue that comes up, we ask them and they say; “that could be another thesis.”

Working on another thesis, graduate student Christina Shenton is researching non-invasive techniques for determining gender, a critical issue in separating the males for meat first, and the females for meat and caviar later – at different maturation rates between five and seven years. Although the sturgeon meat is marketable in addition to the caviar, the female sturgeon at an average of 50 pounds is worth about $2,500 for one fish. The males are worth much less because only the meat is processed. Two methods they are considering are measuring steroid levels and using ultrasound.

“What we’re trying to do is develop practical techniques, or a technique, that can be applied economically for sorting males and females at a farm site like this,” said Hinshaw.

When the female has matured, and it’s time to harvest the roe, killing the fish needs to be done quickly and compassionately, not only for ethical reasons, but also if the fish struggles, there is the potential for a buildup of metabolites such as lactic acid that can affect the taste of the meat and caviar. Hinshaw is considering using a bolt gun, such as that used on cattle. “It applies pressure and it basically kills them right away,” says Hinshaw. “The females are not wasted by any means. At the time we harvest the caviar, our plan is to also harvest the meat from those animals.”

Internally, sturgeons are cartilaginous and
have bones in their heads only. Externally, they
have boney skutes (plates) instead of scales.
Harvesting a 70-pound fish is no small feat, let alone 16,000 of them. Some of the Siberian sturgeon should be mature in 2010, and hopes are that the Atlantic sturgeon will mature sometime soon after, but those first to mature will be for evaluation. The long-term plan is to set up a caviar-processing facility on-site. Because of the fish’s size, it’s more difficult to transport them to another location for processing and to maintain the best quality, so it’s optimal to take the fish right from the tank and directly process them there – whether for meat or caviar.

The tradition of processing caviar dates back at least 100 years, and is unique to fish processing. Once the female sturgeon is mature, the roe is harvested from the female’s ovarian follicles. The eggs are stripped out, rinsed and salted, cleaned and drained with salt water and packaged into 500-gram tins for bulk sale to caviar brokers – all in sterile conditions. Nothing else is typically added, it’s never cooked and generally and there’s no further processing. The caviar is kept at temperatures slightly below freezing, but because of the salt content and oils in the caviar, the caviar doesn’t freeze. “It is essentially a raw, salted product, so you have to be very, very cautious,” says Hinshaw.

Much of the steps in the process are done simply because of tradition rather than having a technological or scientific basis. After processing, it is packaged in tins and then weighted to squeeze out just enough liquid or moisture, to achieve the desired consistency. A broker will sample the caviar before purchasing it – judging it for flavor, aroma, color and texture, and then decide what the caviar is worth. Only then do you know how successful you are at it.

“We’re not going to be harvesting any fish for people to consume until we are assured that there is no residual off-flavor or any other issues with the taste,” said Hinshaw. “You don’t want to have people develop a perception that your sturgeon doesn’t taste good. It is a high value product. So, it’s something we want to do very cautiously in terms of developing the product.”

Sturgeon grow slowly in steel tanks.
Once the owners of LaPaz have their production schedule and new fish continually coming in, their plan is to harvest about 2,500 fish and three tons of caviar annually – generating up to $1 million annually for college programs. Any profits LaPaz makes from selling sturgeon meat and caviar will flow back into the research, because the Foundation is a nonprofit corporation.

In the beginning, the partners estimated the LaPaz project would require $4 million to get the business to profitability. As the LaPaz project was taking off, the partner Bill White, a millionaire from the pharmaceutical industry, was diagnosed with Stage-3 lung cancer. White lived another four months, and in that time, he donated 31,000 shares of Albion Medical Holdings to the NC Agriculture Foundation, to be used for collateral to fund the project and for aquaculture research and development.

“He did a really nice thing, by donating the money and setting it up with The Ag Foundation. That was our seed money to get it started,” said Doll.

“I’ve been in this business almost 30 years, and it’s the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on,” said Oakley. “We saw Bill White two days before he died. He had come home and had a little hospital bed set up downstairs and he was still working and running his business and his staff. He went to his death knowing that this thing was going to work out, and that this dream he had of having this business was going to be successful.”

The LaPaz group intends to show other aquaculture interests in North Carolina that you can successfully produce sturgeon and caviar and be profitable. “I want to see this in five or six farms throughout the state. With the university involved, it will create jobs and be good for the economy in North Carolina,” said Doll.

Doll knows what he is getting into. He said, “We aren’t overly bored. With this business, there’s so much to develop, and so much for us to learn, and hopefully it will create jobs. We wanted to have fun and create jobs.”

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With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of control and enforcement in the Volga River and Caspian Sea, the caviar market has been on tenuous ground. The Caspian Sea and the Volga Delta provide optimal conditions for sturgeon with the right amount of salinity, the best sort of food supply for the fish and the most favorable water temperatures. Combined legal harvests of the three great sturgeon species – Beluga, Russian and Sevruga – declined to roughly 1,000 tons a year in the late 1990s, down from catches that ranged from 20,000 to 30,000 tons two decades before. Add to this the enormous black market catch from ten to fifteen times the legal limit, and you can see why the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005 suspended import and re-export of the threatened populations under the Endangered Species Act.

Richard Adams Carey, in his book, The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire (2005), put it this way: “As the Caspian populations wane, more attention accrues to sturgeons surviving elsewhere in the world, particularly in American waters. The black market has found these fish as well, and today the caviar marketplace in the United States is a kaleidoscopic bazaar of money, politics and intrigue. In this instance, less supply will not make the hunters go away. The sturgeon’s legendary egg will become only a more compelling object of desire.

As so many fisheries steadily decline, aquaculture may be the only solution to the world’s need and desire for fish – a staple of billions of diets. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that half the seafood consumed by adults of the next generation will be farmed. Within the U.S., aquaculture is increasing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a major growth area for U.S. agriculture in the 21st century. In North Carolina, aquaculture is the fastest growing agri-food business; the farm gate value of North Carolina aquaculture products in 2008 was approximately $55 million annually.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Plate to Substrate: An Oyster’s Journey

An unsuspecting, mature oyster is plucked from the Gulf of Mexico for a road-trip to a Raleigh restaurant only to be slathered in melted butter on a plate, soon to meet its maker.

Once its shell would have wastefully been tossed on the garbage heap; now, its shell soldiers on to its afterlife. After a brief purgatory at a recycling site in Wake County, it is submerged into the Pamlico Sound on a mound called “substrate,” lying in wait to foster the growth of new oysters. Simply put, this is an oyster’s journey through the N.C. shell recycling and bed replenishment programs to restore stock that was recently on the brink of extinction.

Native oyster reefs are now the most imperiled marine habitat on Earth because of pollution, over-harvesting and disease, according to The Nature Conservancy. Fortunately, oysters are starting to rebound in North Carolina’s intertidal and subtidal waters, thanks to federal stimulus funding, several programs and local governments – including Wake County – so that instead of piling up in landfills, oyster shells are returned to the water to build oyster reef sanctuaries in hopes to replenish the state’s oyster populations.
 
The Outer Banks furnishes one of the largest and most productive estuarine systems along the eastern seaboard. Oysters are valuable to the marine ecosystem; at a rate of 60 gallons of water a day, they filter pollutants from the water, giving a boost to other marine organisms to survive. Oyster reefs also provide a habitat for fish and other marine life. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the state was home to oyster dredgers hauling in millions of bushels each year; at the peak of abundance in 1902, 1.8 million bushels were harvested.

But in the past few decades, the state’s oyster beds have been seriously threatened; in the 1990s N.C. oyster stocks plummeted after suffering long-term decline caused by over-harvesting and habitat disturbances such as pollution, Red Tide and a drought that stimulated oyster diseases. Replenishment programs allow oysters to spawn, which they prefer to do on a hard substrate such as their own shell material constructed on mounds of marl rock as reefs.

Restoring oysters to where they can thrive requires thousands of acres of oyster reefs. N.C. oyster stocks grew by more than half over the last eight years, thanks to a decline in disease and targeted replenishment programs. To accelerate growth, NOAA recently granted $5 million in federal stimulus funds to the N.C. Coastal Federation to build new sanctuary beds. Also, fisheries management regulations have improved and this has helped, according to Sabrina Varnam, Coordinator of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ Oyster Shell Recycling Program.

The state’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program started in the fall of 2003, where on the coast it has grown from collecting around 700 bushels of oyster shells in 2003 to over 32,000 bushels in 2007. In 2008, there was a decline due to economic factors, but overall, more than 86,000 bushels have been collected since the program’s inception. Shells are recycled from restaurants and the public through local governments’ waste disposal services.

As landfill mass reduction continues to be a perennial challenge, N.C. state law bans the disposal of oyster shells in landfills and prohibits state agencies from using shells in landscaping or beautification projects. This landfill ban is hoped to keep an estimated 300,000 bushels of shells a year out of landfills. The N.C. General Assembly has also established tax credits for donated shells.

Joining the N.C. coastal counties involved in shell recycling, in 2008, four Wake County restaurants participated with Varnam in a pilot project from a NOAA grant collecting more than 5,000 bushels of shells. The pilot showed promise, however it uncovered the need for better receptacles that can be tightly sealed to minimize the odor outside of the restaurants. Except for that glitch, the program appeared to have potential. “We believe the program is necessary, it works, and it benefits the growth of oysters and cleans the water,” said Brad Hurley, owner of 42nd Street Oyster Bar, about the pilot program.

Wake County’s restaurants produce the highest volume of shells of any county in the state. In June 2009 (after the pilot), the county established 12 new oyster shell-recycling sites, including the landfill in Apex which has a weigh station for tax credits for larger restaurants. Clams and mussels are welcome, too. All sites can be used by the public and small restaurants. Durham County has four recycling sites.

Participating in the recycling and replenishment programs are the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, the N.C. Coastal Federation, scientists from N.C. State University and U.N.C.-Wilmington, Sea Grant and local governments. Partly from recycled shells but primarily by purchasing shells from oyster shucking operations, N.C. state agencies have operated different oyster rehabilitation programs for years.

In 2009 from federal stimulus funding, NOAA granted $5 million to the N.C. Coastal Federation for a new Oyster Restoration Project, of which there are two components: The first, dumping limestone marl rock in Pamlico Sound to create oyster sanctuary mounds and second, dropping 40,000 purchased oyster shells to create 19 sanctuary sites over 47 acres along the N.C. coast.

Although both purchased and recycled oysters shell beds are increasing the biomass of oysters in and around the Pamlico Sound area through different programs, this project relies solely on purchased oysters, since the recycling program has not produced enough for this scale. “It’s good that the Oyster Recycling Program produces some oyster shells. It meets some of the restoration needs. Maybe with more education and as more people learn about the program and where the bins are, they’ll be able to donate more,” explained Lexia Weaver, coastal scientist and lead, oyster restoration projects for the N.C. Coastal Federation.

The replenishment project will create or save 140 or more jobs for quarry workers, truck drivers, tug and barge operators, commercial fisherman deploying shells, professors, technicians and some students, according to Weaver. “This is going to be a good project not only for creating jobs but also for advancing oyster restoration in the state. It’s a good partnership across universities and nonprofits.”

So after your next oyster roast, even if you don’t consider the millions of oyster juveniles seeking a home and the jobs that sanctuary-building creates, remember that N.C. law requires you to haul your shells to a local recycling site so that the oyster journey can continue, from plate to substrate.