Perspectives Online

Unusual gift can put CALS in caviar business

Dr. Tom Losordo, CALS aquaculture expert, checks the water from a fish tank. He and Dr. Jeff Hinshaw are helping to develop the LaPaz facility.
Photo by Marc Hall

Some time in the near future, perhaps as soon as 2011, the vision of a Caldwell County businessman will become a reality, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will be in the caviar business.

The businessman, William “Bill” White, died of cancer early in 2008, said Catherine Maxwell, College Executive Director of Development and Director of Development for the College’s North Carolina Agricultural Research Service. Before Bill White died, he arranged to provide one of the more unusual gifts ever to come to the College, controlling interest in a business called La Paz LLC.

Losordo and Hinshaw hold a sturgeon at the facility.
Photo by Marc Hall
La Paz, located just outside Lenoir in an area called Happy Valley, was developed by Bill White and three friends to raise sturgeon for caviar. In developing the business, the partners relied heavily on two North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialists, Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, associate professor of zoology, and Dr. Tom Losordo, professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Both Hinshaw and Losordo are aquaculture experts. Stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Western North Carolina, Hinshaw works closely with the trout industry. Losordo, on campus in Raleigh, is an expert on aquaculture systems that raise fish in tanks and recirculate the water through specialized filtration systems.

Hinshaw and Losordo continue to be involved in developing La Paz, even though it is not yet producing caviar.

Sturgeon, Hinshaw explained, are long-lived, relatively slow-growing fish. It can take five to seven years before they’re mature enough to produce good quality caviar. At the time of Bill White’s death, La Paz had acquired sturgeon and had partially completed a facility to house the fish; however, the fish aren’t yet mature enough to produce caviar. Nor is the facility that will house the fish complete.

The facility, metal buildings that hold specialized tanks and fixtures, is being built as the fish grow, Losordo said. The first of three planned buildings is finished, while the second is under construction.

Maxwell said that in addition to an interest in La Paz, White provided funding to complete the facility and operate the company until it is self-sustaining.

“Bill had this dream and realized that the only people he knew who could take it across the finish line were the faculty he worked with in the College,” said Maxwell. She added that if and when La Paz becomes profitable, those profits will be used to fund College research, particularly aquaculture research.

As now planned, Hinshaw said La Paz will eventually be able to produce as much as three tons of caviar annually, which could generate up to $1 million annually for College programs.

In the meantime, La Paz offers research opportunities for Hinshaw, Losordo and their graduate students, along with the challenge of getting the business up and running.

Hinshaw envisions a “whole gamut of research” generally involving optimizing the environment in which fish are raised and live. He envisions research on subjects ranging from understanding sturgeon tolerance to a variety of water chemistry parameters to nutritional questions and optimal tank dimension and shape, even the lighting in the buildings.

Losordo said only a few other companies in the United States are attempting aquaculture with sturgeon, so the knowledge base is not as deep as with other species. For his part, Losordo is concerned about water quality. He explained that the systems in use at La Paz produce sufficient water quality for the fish to survive, but if the water quality is not good enough, off flavors can accumulate in the eggs and fatty parts of the fish. He’ll be looking at water quality to ensure that the caviar produced by La Paz has the best flavor possible.

Hinshaw helped White and La Paz acquire three sturgeon species: Atlantic, Siberian and Russian, also known as Osetra. He said caviar from different species varies in quality.

Beluga caviar from Beluga sturgeon from the Black Sea in Russia is considered the best caviar in the world but is in short supply as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction. Hinshaw said high-quality Osetra caviar usually is ranked just behind Beluga in quality, while Siberian sturgeon produce a more average caviar. Caviar from Atlantic sturgeon, native to the U.S. Atlantic coast, is not generally available and as a result, the quality is unknown, Hinshaw said. However, he said caviar brokers have suggested that Atlantic sturgeon caviar should be medium to high grade.

La Paz has about 13,000 fish on hand, with the largest weighing around 50 pounds. Male fish are obviously of no use in producing caviar, or fish eggs, but can be sold for their meat, which is usually smoked. Hinshaw said La Paz may begin selling sturgeon meat as soon as 2009.

Caviar will have to wait a few more years, but should be in demand when it is available. Hinshaw said most sturgeon species have declined as a result of overfishing and habit destruction, adding that a moratorium is in effect on commercial fishing for Atlantic sturgeon, and La Paz is the only business in the country with commercial permits to raise the fish.

With sturgeon populations generally declining, caviar generally is in short supply, regardless of the species, so Hinshaw and Losordo anticipate eager buyers for La Paz caviar.

— Dave Caldwell