It’s the end of only the first week of the official Atlantic sturgeon fishing season on the St. John River in New Brunswick, Canada. But the two fishermen who supply Cornel Ceapa’s Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar company have already landed close to half of the season’s catch.
This seems impressive, until you learn that the total quota for the river — the last legal wild caviar sturgeon fishery in the world — is only 350 fish per year: 175 males and 175 females. By comparison, on this same river, between 1880, when the fishery opened, and 1886, about 712 metric tons of sturgeon were harvested before it was closed for 10 years because of overfishing.
But Romanian-born aquaculture and fisheries expert Ceapa, who wrote his PhD thesis on sturgeon ecology, is jubilant, calling this year “one of the best seasons up until now.”
That would mean since 2005, when he launched his bid to both play a role in the stewardship of New Brunswick’s small wild fishery and build a thriving commercial aquaculture business for one of the most expensive and prized products of the ocean. Both pieces are important, he says, because farmed and wild must go hand in hand.
“We’re heading for trouble,” he says, because human demand for seafood is increasing, and wild stocks are not.” For every wild fishery in existence today, Ceapa firmly believes, “We should start farming that species, side by side. Wild is not enough.”
The sturgeon story on the St. John is one that’s been repeated the world over: sturgeon fisheries in the Black, Caspian, and Baltic seas have all been closed because of overfishing. But there are pockets of recovering wild sturgeon stocks throughout North America, including in the St. Lawrence, Hudson and Columbia rivers. Wild sturgeon are also still protected in parts of Florida and Wisconsin, where they are reserved for sport fishing or meat gillnet fishing only.
Nearly all legal sturgeon products and all sturgeon caviar — except for Ceapa’s— comes from aquaculture farms, with China leading the way in both categories.
At his hatchery located on Carters Point, a pristine spot not far from where the St. John River empties into the Bay of Fundy, Cepea, his wife Dorina, son Michael and a staff of five manage and process their small wild Atlantic sturgeon catch in July and August. Year round, they tend to their farmed stocks of shortnose sturgeon, a different species also found in the St. John.
In the hatchery, round steel tanks, their interiors painted aquamarine, look like so many kiddie pools in a row, and in a way they are; their residents range in age from fertilized shortnose embryos to one- and two-year-old juveniles. At six months, most will be sent to another facility to grow, and a few older fish are kept to supply research universities. The largest tank is reserved for broodstock sturgeon, which are wild caught and range in age from 20 to 40 years old. Their role is to mate and start the cycle of life all over again.
Fossils of today’s sturgeon genus date back at least 70 million years, though the fish has been around in some form for about 200 million years. Sturgeon look like prehistoric remnants from an age when dinosaurs roamed the earth, too, clad in horned, bony plates with whisker-like barbels protruding from below their snouts. The smaller shortnose that Ceapa farms can grow up to about 40 pounds, 54 inches long, and live as long as 60 years.
On one end of the hatchery, a machine quietly pumps brine shrimp feed into tanks filled with sturgeon larvae. At about six weeks old, they’re weaned off that and placed on a high-protein diet of fish meal and fish oils.
In a business with razor-thin profit margins, Ceapa’s goal is to use as much of the fish as possible, a nose-to-tailfin version of what whole animal butchers strive for. Metal screens separate the premium caviar eggs from the fish’s ovaries, after which they are rinsed, lightly salted and packed in sterilized tins. Loins and filets are smoked, and offal such as tripe and swim bladders also have their markets.
The bladders, cartilage and bone marrow are all considered delicacies in eastern Asia, says Ceapa, and sturgeon tripe has a “very nice texture and clean taste.” Even the gonads have their use; they are shipped to an Italian cosmetics company. Ceapa is also exploring the possibility of tanning farmed sturgeon skins in a way that renders them flexible enough to use like leather.
At Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario, chef Jason Bangerter likes to show guests a large dried Acadian Sturgeon skin to help explain his caviar’s provenance and tell the story of the hatchery.
At Boralia, a Toronto restaurant that draws on historic Canadian recipes and indigenous culture, chef Wayne Morris makes a kind of sturgeon “chip” that Ceapa developed. A pressure-cooked mix of cartilage and marrow is blended, frozen, dehydrated, sliced and then deep fried, creating the crunchy, oceanic equivalent of pork rinds, or chicharrones. Morris, who says he’s inspired by the singleminded “passion and focus” of Ceapa, serves the chips atop a Digby Bay Nova Scotia diver scallop crudo dressed with horseradish crème fraiche, a fermented chili-brine granita, and garnished with Mexican mouse melons.
One of the benefits of a venture like Ceapa’s, Morris points out, is that “hyperlocal” and sustainable-minded restaurants like his can now put caviar on their menus.
Rather than describing his business as “sustainable,” which Ceapa asserts should be reserved for wild stocks, he prefers the term “responsible agriculture,” which for him encompasses being environmentally sustainable, socially responsible and fiscally viable.
Today, in addition to supplying live sturgeon to researchers and hatcheries around the world, the company also participates in a tagging study with the University of New Brunswick to monitor the St. John sturgeon population. While he considers aquaculture a force for good “as long as it’s done right,” he says farmers need to take certain precautions.
The sturgeon scientist in him is opposed, for example, to the indiscriminate hybridizing of sturgeon in many aquaculture ventures, either because owners are short on broodstock or they are trying to reduce maturity time and increase production. The release or escape of farmed fish into non-native waters, says Ceapa, can lead to the displacement of local species when the newcomers “compete for food, eat other species, or genetically inbreed with local species.”
Because the Atlantic sturgeon is genetically identical to the sturgeon in the Baltic Sea, Ceapa will only sell live sturgeon for restocking to countries bordering that body of water. In those parts, he’s hailed as a sturgeon savior.
Ceapa knows that to keep up with the world’s seafood demands, aquaculture is an imperative, not a choice. “We have all the science we need to keep populations sustainable, but there are political, social and environmental pressures,” he says, that complicate the picture and make achieving those goals a challenge. His hope is that his hybrid wild-and-farmed business will be a model for keeping other wild seafood species sustainable.
As for the future of sturgeon, Ceapa is optimistic. “It took almost one hundred years [for sturgeon fisheries] to fully recover,” he says, “but luckily sturgeon are very resilient.”
Nancy Matsumoto is a journalist based in Toronto who writes about sustainability, food, sake and Japanese-American culture.