Catering to Caviar Tastes From an Unexpected Place

NewYork Times
2012-05-12 06:47

Jean Chung for The International Herald Tribune
Han Sang-hun, left, a fish farmer, returns a sturgeon to the aquarium after extracting its eggs.
Published: May 11, 2012

CHUNGJU, SOUTH KOREA — When Han Sang-hun brought 200 sturgeons on a chartered plane from Russia in 1997, South Korean officials regarded the alien fish with a level of suspicion that the owner of a fish pond might reserve for an invasion of sharks. After all, the sturgeon, because of its prickly looks, is called the armored shark in Korean.

“They said if any of them escaped into the rivers, they would ruin the local ecosystem, attacking and devouring other fish,” Mr. Han recalled with a pained amusement. “The sturgeon is a slow-swimming fish with no teeth to speak of.”

When he finally extricated his fish from customs, he placed them at a riverside farm in this town 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, southeast of Seoul. For the next 12 years, Mr. Han spent $1 million a year feeding and looking after a stock that grew to 50,000 sturgeons, all children of the original 200. But he got little in return until 2009, when the fish were old enough to yield caviar — one of the world’s most expensive delicacies, selling for as much as $400 per ounce, or $14 a gram.

On a recent spring harvesting day, a farmhand gently massaged a sturgeon’s belly as Mr. Han traced a slender steel device up its egg-laying duct and popped a bulging egg sack inside. Roe poured out like so many black pearls into a bowl.

“This business is not for everyone. You have to invest for 10 to 15 years with no immediate return,” Mr. Han said in an interview at his farm, lamenting that 70 people who bought sturgeons from him to start their farms had all given up, asking him to buy back the fish.

For Mr. Han, the harvest was worth all the hassle, investment and waiting.

The global efforts to curtail the fishing and exporting of caviar from the Caspian Sea — the historical center of sturgeon fisheries, where overfishing, pollution and poaching have depleted wild populations — have squeezed supplies and driven up prices. This year, as it has several times since 2001, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, again all but banned international trade in wild caviar. The trend has created business opportunities for sturgeon farms, even in unlikely places like the United Arab Emirates and South Korea.

“The shift to aquaculture and captive breeding of sturgeons in an increasing number of countries all over the world may soon make it difficult for caviar from wild sturgeon populations to find a place in the international market,” Cites said in a report in March.

Mr. Han, a native of a fishing village west of Seoul and an economist by training, saw an early opportunity in the new dynamics of the world’s caviar industry when he visited the republic of Kalmykiya, then part of the Soviet Union and now part of Russia, in 1987. Then employed as a financial specialist at Texas Instruments, he encountered, for the first time, beluga — the most prized sturgeon variety — and began to dream of opening the first sturgeon farm in South Korea.

One of his best business decisions, he said, was to persuade his Russian contacts to sell him 200 gravid sturgeons, not fertilized eggs or fingerlings, in 1997. Not only did those fish provide fingerlings, or baby sturgeons, but also yearly opportunities for Mr. Han and his staff to experiment with developing “sustainable” egg-harvesting skills. This avoids killing the fish for their roe, as traditional sturgeon fishers do, but instead allows them to continue to grow in their pools and spawn again, in around two years.

Most caviar farms still sacrifice their fish, said Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a sturgeon expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. But David H.W. Morgan, the chief scientist at Cites, said farms were moving toward sustainable techniques that, given the long time sturgeons take to reach maturity, “would have economic advantages as well.”

Some caviar producers have tried making an incision in the fish’s belly to collect the roe in a piscine version of a Caesarean section. In recent years, fisheries biologists in countries including Iran and the United States have developed techniques similar to Mr. Han’s that are less invasive and stressful. Instead of poking the fish with a screwdriver to find out whether they are ready to spawn, farms now can use a biopsy or ultrasound. Mr. Han said that after years of trial and error, his team has found a way to make that determination by feeling various parts of a fish.

“It is difficult and expensive to change,” said Sergei Reviakin, director of Mottra, a London caviar dealer, explaining why most farms still kill their fish for roe. Also, public opinion has not yet turned against the traditional method, he said.

Mr. Reviakin said his indoor farm in Riga, Latvia, has been practicing sustainable harvesting since 2008. There, he said, trained staff also massage the eggs out of the fish in a method he said was different from Mr. Han’s but that also sometimes involved making a very small incision.

Mr. Han said he did not worry about a growing number of competitors around the world, because an insatiable appetite among the wealthy would keep demand for caviar far outpacing the supply. He has other challenges.

“In the United States, for example, when they hear the word Korea, they think of Kim Jong-il, not caviar,” he said. “Selling caviar from Korea has been like an American chef trying to persuade Korean housewives to buy his kimchi.”

After years of participating in international gourmet food exhibitions, Mr. Han said his product, marketed under the brand Almas Caviar, was finally becoming known. This year, Almas began supplying to some of the top caviar distributors in the world and laying plans to open its own stores in New York and Tokyo. It has also begun selling caviar extracts to cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies.

To meet a growing demand for farmed caviar after Cites’s new ban on wild caviar exports, Mr. Han planned to increase his caviar production from 3.8 tons last year to 6 tons this year, about one-third of his farm’s maximum capacity and about 10 percent of the legal international caviar trade that he forecasts for this year.

There are no reliable estimates on global caviar production. Cites reported that 71 tons of caviar, including 8 tons of wild origin, had been exported in 2010, the last year for which such tallies were available — but the organization does not keep statistics on caviar that is domestically consumed or traded illegally. Mr. Reviakin, for one, says that about 150 tons of caviar is produced in farms annually and that at least three times more than that is sold illegally.

Mr. Han’s company all but monopolizes the domestic South Korean market, where he says he hopes caviar consumption will more than double to 1.5 tons this year. Here, when the rich talk about gourmet food, they still think mainly of raw fish or the choicest cuts of beef. Mr. Han has been trying to change that, sponsoring haute caviar-and-Champagne clubs.

After 15 years of dedicating himself to his sturgeons, Mr. Han compared his farm to a factory with “50,000 workers who can’t speak or form a labor union.”

“They grow listening to their owner’s footsteps,” Mr. Han said, replicating the phrase Korean ginseng farmers use to describe the constant care their crops demand during the six years the roots take to grow before they are ready for harvesting.

Mr. Han, who is 56, must plan carefully for the long term. His fish must grow for 10 years before laying eggs, and they can live to be 150 years old. He plans to expand his stock fourfold to 200,000 sturgeons over the next 15 years.

In 2001, he divided his stock of 50,000 fish and moved half of it to a farm that he opened north of Seoul, hedging against the risk of his fish dying off together in an accident, like a power outage disabling temperature regulation systems.

“However remote the chances are, I must also prepare for things like war,” he said. “Few people seem to believe a war will break out again on the Korean Peninsula. But if you look at our history, hardly a century has gone by without a war.”

With such concerns in mind, he began looking for farm locations in Hokkaido in northern Japan, as well as in Maine and Wyoming in the United States, where he could expand to further reduce his risks.

“The fish will live long after I am gone. I am thinking about who’s going to take care of them when I am no longer here,” Mr. Han said. “Raising sturgeon, I have learned a lot about time, human mortality and environmental preservation.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 16, 2012

An article on Saturday about a start-up caviar producer in South Korea misstated the business relationship of the Korean company, Almas Caviar, to Petrossian, based in New York and one of the world’s top caviar distributors. Petrossian has had discussions with Almas, but it has neither purchased nor sold caviar from the Korean firm. Almas did not begin supplying Petrossian this year.