First day at ISS7: Touring the Northern Divine caviar farm


There’s an organic caviar farm, Northern Divine (http://www.northerndivine.com) in Sechelt just across the Straits of Georgia from Nanaimo where the conference is located. The best way to make a quick trip across the strait? A little teeny bushplane with floats.

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/insert glorious angelic choir sound/

/insert glorious angelic choir sound/

A common feature of BC beaches: lots and lots of driftwood.

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Our pilot with his trusty 1952-vintage steed.

Our pilot with his trusty 1952-vintage steed.

Some folks from Northern Divine picked us up from the floatplane dock and brought us over to the facility. They have people come through on tours all the time, so they’ve got windows for easy checking-out of the caviar making process without having to track through and disrupt everybody.

Hard at work in the caviar mines

Hard at work in the caviar mines

The way traditional caviar harvest works is slaughter the fish, remove the ovaries with the eggs all still attached to the membranes, and then rubbing the mass across a screen to separate the eggs from the membrane. A couple of the guys on our tour have caviar farms of their own, so they were discussing the ins and outs of getting the fish to a nice healthy size without overfeeding to the point that lots of fat accumulates on and in the ovarian tissue– leading to weird flavors and poor yields. One related how at the very beginning of their operation, they knew that caviar yield was about 10% of body weight. They fed the fish as much as they would eat so as to have bigger fish. The end result was about 2% bw worth of caviar and lots and lots of sturgeon grease. Oops….

Stretcher

Tables for cutting sturgeon. (Ice machine in the background.)

This is the stretcher where they hold the fish for gutting. Ovaries go in in a container and pass through a window to the caviar room for screening. (They want to keep whole fish separate from the caviar.) Everything else gets filleted.

Kettle bells

Kettle bells

The most important part of turning eggs into caviar is adding salt. Like most things, sturgeon eggs release liquid when they encounter salt. As the volume shrinks you need to press on the tin to shrink it down and get the liquid out. Pretty much the same deal as pressing the whey out of cheese– with the exception that in caviar you’re not trying to fuse individual eggs together the way you do with cheese curds. You want to remove just enough that they’re not gloopy but not so much that they get dry. What did they find out was the perfect size & shape for getting the job done? Kettle bells.

Stay tuned for more ISS7 caviar loveliness all this week!

Aquaponics, stewardship, and local economies: or, the Bacon Manifesto

A couple years ago somebody tried to start a sturgeon farm in Melrose near our part of Florida. It didn’t go well. From what I can tell the Water Management District authorities had been leaning on locals for years to switch to low-flow toilets and other appliances at great expense, take short showers, put in low-water landscaping, etc. This is not a problem in itself. The Floridan aquifer is indeed at risk, and our springs are drying up from groundwater overuse. The people in this area lived there because they liked the springs. They were happy to oblige.

It was when, after all that, the WMD tried to grant this fish farm close to half a million gallons/day for free that stuff got real.

Many parts of the world have a history of extractive industries. They create some dead-end jobs, foul up the land until they’ve taken all the goodies, and then leave. One of northern Florida’s most impressive current examples is phosphate mining. Phosphate mining digs up forest and farm land and turns it into impressive piles of slag and slime pits. (Seriously, that’s what the waste ponds are called. Slime pits.) Sometimes the slag piles disappear into sinkholes and everybody gets to drink it. The slime pits are supposed to turn into normal ponds eventually, but it’s a long-term process and suffice it to say we still don’t know if it really works. And most of all, phosphate mining uses so. much. water. With our nutso geology, using a lot of water makes the ground collapse and swallow up houses and sometimes the people inside them.

Blimey! What a beauty! This epic sinkhole opened up under a stack of mildly radioactive phosphate mine waste in 1994. Image; data sources here, here, here.

Blimey! What a beauty! This epic sinkhole opened up in Polk County, FL under a stack of mildly radioactive phosphate mine waste in 1994. Image source;  info here, here, and here.

My mom’s mom grew up in a dead-end coal mining mountain village in Kentucky. The only reason she got out was that she was hot and managed to marry a guy who took her out of town. The reason she stayed out is the stigma of divorce at the time meant that after the marriage fell apart she couldn’t ever come back home. It’s not a great story. It’s not exactly a tale of American Dream triumph. But that’s ok. There are worse things than being exiled from a strip-mining hellhole where you can’t work the land or drink the water anyway, and the only way to get life’s necessities is through a company store system painstakingly designed to keep you in debt slavery until you die.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I hear you. There should no place for that kind of exploitative industry. It is a waste of peoples’ talents and lives. It is a waste of natural resources that you can’t ever put back. And it’s a waste of precious time that we could be using to find better ways to take care of human needs. We can do better.

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That’s why I’m really pumped to have a chance to work with a green technology like aquaponics. Good technologies use cleverness to replace natural resources. If we want to have a sustainable economy we need to start using less of what we have in short supply– water, fertilizer, energy– and more of what we have plenty of– human creativity and manpower.

Growing caviar gives us a chance to have the time and capital we need to develop aquaponics into a really effective commercial-scale system. There are still some things we need to work out, like how best to control the temperature. What the best cultivars are for each kind of vegetable. Things like that. Florida has a lot of great agricultural extension scientists who work on learning how to better grow fish (sturgeon, even!) and vegetables. But we don’t have any who deal with aquaponics. It’s up to us to work these things out ourselves. Alas, research is expensive. So in order to get aquaponics where it needs to go, we need to be able to promise people a piece of a solid pot of gold later in return for money now.

The high value of caviar isn’t all bad either. I’m really glad that with aquaponics we’re able to grow vegetables too, which is something that’s useful to everybody. But if you want to help jump-start a local economy, you might as well make something that’s going to bring home the bacon!

Ohhhhhh bacon. Reminding me that it's lunchtime. Be right back....

Ohhhhhh bacon. You’re reminding me that it’s lunchtime. Be right back….


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To find more about sustainable development in northern Florida, please see the excellent goings-on here at Florida’s Eden and Gainesville Connect.

Why sturgeon?

We want to grow sturgeon. This can actually be a pretty controversial topic here in Florida so I wanted to talk about why we want to do this, and why we think it’s a good move for social and environmental justice.

The biggest reason is that wild sturgeon are in a lot of trouble– this group of fish is one of the most endangered families of species in the world because of poaching for their caviar. North America’s sturgeon are still reeling from a caviar fishing binge that happened over 100 years ago to fuel the export market. The Caspian Sea is the main caviar fishery today. The US and other countries have made valiant efforts through CITES (Convention on the International Trade on Endangered Species), their own endangered species laws to stop poached caviar from coming into their borders, and strong publicity campaigns from activists to let people know about the risk to sturgeon species from caviar consumption. This is awesome. It is good that so many of us don’t want to be the species that ends a fish that outlived T. rex.

Spinosaurus eating sturgeon

Everybody loves to eat sturgeon! (What I really wanted was a drawing of a T. rex trying to eat caviar out of one of those hoity-toity mother-of-pearl spoons with those gimpy little arms of theirs. Oddly enough that doesn’t seem to exist yet, so we’ll make do with this. Which is still pretty awesome.)

But unfortunately, US law and advocacy mean nothing in Russia. (Don’t feel bad America– Russian law and advocacy don’t mean much in Russia either.) The caviar trade in the Caspian Sea basin cannot be stopped by Western law enforcement or social efforts. It just can’t. Common sense, stewardship, and even international wrath mean nothing to organized crime.

You can’t force someone to change if they don’t want to. You know what you can do? Take measures to protect yourself and others from the consequences of their reckless behavior. In our case, that means farming sturgeon.

There’s a death spiral with poaching endangered species. The fewer there are, the more the price of their bodies goes up, and the harder people hunt them. I found an interesting thing while doing caviar market research. Golden caviar from albino sturgeon commands a premium. I saw the price climb year by year to $24,000 per kilogram– $24,000 per kilogram, you guys!– in 2012. And now this year nobody carries it. It’s gone. Death spiral.

Almas? ¡No más!

Almas? ¡No más! (Caviar House & Prunier)

Farming caviar throws a wrench into the death spiral. It stops the price climb– and the incentive to overhunt– in its tracks. Each kilogram that comes off a farm doesn’t just replace a kilogram from a wild fish. It also drops the price you can charge for a kilogram of caviar because it’s no longer such a rarity. That price drop means poachers give it up because it isn’t worth it anymore. And we can do all that from right here in the US– we don’t need to go over there and cause some kind of international law enforcement incident to make this happen.

So that’s why we think farming caviar is a good deal for world sturgeon conservation in general. We also believe that we can do it in a way that respects our local Florida environment and aquifer and build northern Florida’s economy on a sustainable basis. More on that to come.