Sturgeon farming in recirculating aquaculture systems

November 2003

R.A.M. Remmerswaal


For centuries Sturgeon Caviar has been considered a royal delicacy. During the last 20 years Sturgeon stocks have been decimated, especially in the former Soviet Union. At the same time Sturgeon Caviar is becoming increasingly rare and prices are steadily rising. The prime quality Caviar is Beluga Caviar. During the last 3 years retail prices of Beluga Caviar have risen from roughly 2,000 $/kg to over 3,500 $/kg.

During the last decades culture techniques have been developed and for less than 10 years Caviar has been produced in farms on a commercial scale
. The long period until first production, 5-8 years, has been a huge obstacle for investors. At present there are about 30 sturgeon farms in the world that produce roughly 20 tons Caviar per year. It is estimated that in 2010 the global Caviar production will rise to 40-50 tons. At the same time fisheries production is expected to decrease from 80-120 tons at present to less than 30-40 tons in 2010. Global demand depends on the price but varied in the past 2 centuries from 300-1200 tons per year.

Thus, Sturgeon culture has the potential of a well-paying
business with long term high revenues, but with a long start-up period of 5-7 years.

Caviar, a royal delicacy.

Sturgeon biology

The Sturgeon family includes 27 species that can be found all over the Northern hemisphere, both in fresh, brackish and sea water. The Sturgeons have been roaming the earth waters for at least 150 million years.

The shape of the body is fairly similar to that of sharks. Along the back and sides the Sturgeon has rows of bony plates, the scutes. Most species have a pointed nose and a set of barbells in front of the mouth. Although most species eat fish, shellfish and crustaceans they do not have teeth.

Sturgeons spawn in rivers. The eggs and larvae develop in the river, but the juveniles normally move down stream to grow up at sea. When they are mature they return to the spawning grounds where they were born, just like salmon.

The well known species include the Beluga (Huso huso); the Osetra (A. gueldentaedti) and the Sevruga (A. stellatus). The Beluga is the largest of them all and record species were found larger than 6 meters, weighing over 1.5 tons, reaching an age of 175 years.

Sturgeon products

Sturgeon is most famous for the Caviar. These are the eggs of the female sturgeon, just before the final ripening. Eggs are harvested from the fish, lightly salted and packed in jars or cans for consumption. The “berries” are normally 2-3.5 mm in size and colors range from black to grey to golden. The taste is often described as nutty and creamy.

Less well known is Sturgeon meat. The meat is normally smoked and has a texture more like meat than like fish. Other products include the skins for production of leather and the swimbladder for production of isinglass. Young Sturgeons also have a ready market as ornamental fish for garden ponds.

Ninety percent of the Sturgeon is caught in the Caspian Sea and it’s rivers. Russia and Iran are the major producers, but fisheries production is rapidly going down. The main causes are the pollution caused by the oil industry; factories along the rivers and the agriculture. Other problems include the obstruction of spawning grounds by hydrodams (Russia) and extensive poaching a
fter the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Sturgeon culture

Sturgeon has been cultured for at least 50 years, mainly in the Soviet Union for restocking of the waters with juvenile fish. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this production has gone down rapidly due to lack of funds.

Sturgeon farming in RAS.

Serious aquaculture projects started about 15 years ago, especially in France, Italy and the USA (California). Presently there are 40 farm projects in about 20 countries. Between those there are about 10 projects that target or achieved caviar productions of 2-6 tons per year.

The most interesting Sturgeon species require culture temperatures in the range of 18-26 ºC and fresh or brackish water.

The normal culture system is the flow through system. The Sturgeons are housed in tanks or raceways that are continuously provided with clean water from a river, spring or well. Presently several farms are using recirculation technology
, whereby the culture water is continuously cleaned by filters and recycled. The advantage of this technology is that the farmer can control and manipulate the culture environment. 

Most farms are intensive farms; the fish are kept in high densities to reduce the farm size and to increase control over the stock.

Sturgeon culture prospects

Sturgeon culture is high-tech and capital intensive business with a long start-up time. The Sturgeon products are highly valued with a large gap between supply and demand and a minimum number of competitors.

Sturgeon project options

A Sturgeon farm will only give revenues after about 2-3 years (males for meat production) with the major cash flow starting afer 6-8 years (Caviar). High quality management and farm equipment are needed to minimize the culture risks and maximize output. These are available but at a cost. Thus, a farm must have a minimum production size to reduce the fixed cost part of the production cost. In general a farm operation should target a Caviar production of at least 5 tons per year. Presently the most prospective Sturgeon species include the Siberian Sturgeon (Acipenser baeri); the Russian Sturgeon (A. gueldenstaedti); the Beluga (Huso huso) and the White Sturgeon (A. transmontanus).

Newly constructed  intensive sturgeon farm in Florida, USA.

For an economical successful farm it is suggested to target a production of 5 tons Caviar per year. The idea is to start with the  Siberian Sturgeon because they are readily available, but to switch to Osetra or Beluga whenever possible.

Sturgeon project description

An intensive sturgeon farm must include a broodstock unit; a hatchery/nursery and a grow-out system. These culture systems are housed in fixed buildings (the first 2 phases) and greenhouses (grow-out). Each system is split up in several stand alone units to reduce disease risks and has it’s own filtration system. Besides the systems there are shared facilities that include offices; a generator/electrical room; food store; workshop
and processing and storage units for the products.
Recirculating aquaculture system in combination with greenhouse technology provides optimum environment to culture sturgeon.

When in full production the farm will house roughly 250-300 tons of Sturgeon. The annual production will include 5 tons of Caviar and 75 tons of fish for production of meat, leather and swimbladder, as well as 15.000-20.000 juveniles for the ornamental fish market. 

The covered farm area will be approximately 12.000 m2, of which 10.000 m2 is formed by greenhouses. To run the farm a good manager is needed, as well as 10 men, including 4 skilled workers. The annual food use is about 200 tons and energy uptake is in the order of 200 kW-year. Every year about 40.000 fingerlings must be produced.

Sturgeon farm in operation.

Sturgeon project feasibility

Project feasibility strongly depends on the local conditions. Farm investment can range from USD 2-4 million. Production cost, excluding capital cost, can range from USD 400.000 to over USD 800.000 per year. Wholesale prices of Caviar and meat are presently in the order of 400-450 and 6-8 USD/kg respectively. Thus, once production has stabilized annual revenues can be expected in the order of USD 2.45 to 2.85 million.

Project development

In case of a long-term, capital intensive project as described above proper preparation is a must. We have a team of dedicated experts who can guide you successfully through this process.

For more information please contact us at the address listed below.

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