Sturgeon is among the oldest and most unusual species of fish on earth, the largest freshwater fish in North America, and its found, and farmed, in BC, to produce caviar, and fresh or smoked fish.
By CINDA CHAVICH
It’s hardly hyperbole to say that British Columbia’s white sturgeon is an epic fish.
It’s among the oldest and most unusual species of fish on earth, the largest freshwater fish in North America.
When I say large, I mean mammoth. Images of sport fishers, standing six abreast, cradling an eight-foot specimen before releasing it back into the Fraser River, are not uncommon.
Old? How about 200 million years, predating the dinosaurs, and definitely unusual – a boneless, sinewy monster covered in sharp plates of exterior armour, like some strange Gene Simmons of the sea.
These rare fish are both endangered and protected in the wild, but thanks to growing interest in eco-friendly, land-based sturgeon farming, for both caviar and meat, sturgeon is now becoming popular on the plate.
Another surprise is that North America’s main hub for sturgeon research is right here on Vancouver Island, the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies (ICSS) at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo.
What started with a few white sturgeon kept in outdoor ponds for biology and conservation study, has morphed into a full-scale aquaculture and aquaponics degree program, where students get a real hands-on education in raising these ancient fish.
It’s warm and smells like the sea as we enter one of the four large rooms where the young sturgeon are swimming in ten massive fiberglass tanks. Dave Switzer is the sturgeon culturist, charged with caring for the fish and overseeing the experiments with feed, temperature and other variables that provide information to a the sturgeon aquaculture industry.
Another room holds even larger tanks for the “brood stock,” a handful of massive wild fish that provide eggs for every new generation.
“Some of original fish were rescued from backyard ponds, some caught in fishing nets,” says Switzer, pointing out some of big females, whimsically named for celebrities.
“This is Tyra Banks – all of our girls are named after fashion models – and she’s our biggest fish, more than 100 kg.”
Students learn how to harvest and fertilize the eggs and raise the 2,000 to 5,000 fish produced here each year.
Fed as diet of fish pellets that look suspiciously like cat food, the tiny sturgeon will reach “market weight” of about 2 kg in two years, while maturity for farmed caviar production is 10.
Northern Divine, the organic, land-based sturgeon farm in Sechelt that supplies caviar and fish to many BC restaurant chefs, received it’s original stock from VIU and Switzer says the program could supply fish for similar operations.
“We can produce a lot of babies here to support a sturgeon farming industry,” he says.
Researchers here are also discovering that sturgeon are hardy fish that are perfect for aquaponics, closed systems where fish effluent becomes fertilizer for growing plants. In fact, there is a large greenhouse here where basil, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers and other edibles are thriving.
The only downside of raising sturgeon for research is housing them. When they run out of room in the tanks, the fish must be culled.
But the university has come up with a solution for that, too, and last year it began selling sturgeon to support its research. Some is filleted and sold directly to chefs, some is smoked and frozen, and some is smoked and canned, for sale at the university bookstore. Sturgeon is also served by VIU culinary students in the school’s Discovery Room restaurant or for other special events.
But Switzer says they could be selling live fish to new fish farms, too.
“I hope someone comes to get our brood stock before we run out of space,” he says. “We have a lot of expertise to share with the industry. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before the sturgeon farming business grows.”
There are 28 different species of sturgeon living in rivers around the world but in Canada, the white sturgeon is only found in BC. In the wild, most white sturgeon spawn in three BC rivers, the Fraser/Nechako, Columbia and Kootenay. Some fish have also made their way to the Cowichan and Somass Rivers on Vancouver Island, and “sea monsters” living our in lakes - from the Okanagan’s Ogopogo to the creature of Cameron Lake - may actually be aging sturgeon, the largest fish reach “monstrous” lengths of six meters and weights of 600-800 kg.
Oddly boneless, with a skeleton of cartilage, a sturgeon has rows of sharp plates called scutes running the length of its body, an external armor that adds to it’s mystique. With a flattened snout, wide, toothless mouth, and long, whiskery barbels to navigate the murky depths, the sturgeon is a fascinating carnivore that can live more than 150 years.
There is no commercial fishery for white sturgeon in BC, but the fish may be caught, and released, by sports fishers in the Fraser River. A limited commercial fishery for the smaller Atlantic sturgeon remains open in one river in eastern Canada, the Saint John River in New Brunswick.
WHAT CAME FIRST
When it comes to the fresh and smoked sturgeon available in restaurants and fish shops, there’s no question what came first – it was definitely the eggs.
In Canada, sturgeon fillets are a product of the emerging farmed caviar industry, a business that’s boomed in recent years due to collapsing wild sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea and the ban on wild beluga caviar.
There are two Canadian caviar producers, one on each coast. Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon are farmed in New Brunswick at Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar, a company that also harvests wild Atlantic sturgeon from the Saint John River. In BC, white sturgeon are raised at Northern Divine, a company producing organic black caviar and fish products on the Sunshine Coast.
Farming sturgeon, as both companies do in land-based tanks, is considered sustainable, as no waterways, habitat or other species are impacted in the process. But raising fish for caviar means the females are often sacrificed for their eggs, and along with the males, are ending up on the best Ocean Wise menus across the country.
There is also a limited supply of fresh and smoked sturgeon from the ICSS program, which is why it’s on the menu at The Beach Club Resort in Parksville.
“We use it as a special, once a week or so,” says Beach Club Food & Beverage Director Ian Lane. “We started serving sturgeon about a year ago and it’s just an awesome product. It’s just the right fit for us - local, sustainable and a really special experience.”
Many fishers have had the thrill of catching a massive white sturgeon in BC waters, says Lane, but few get the chance to taste the rare fish.
“It’s a very versatile fish and everyone’s who’s had it, loves it,” says Lane.
CHEFS FOR STURGEON
Sturgeon is the new darling of top chefs looking for local and certified Ocean Wise seafood. At the recent Gold Medal Plates competition in Victoria, North 48 chef Sam Chalmers served sous vide sturgeon with smoked potato, Northern Divine caviar and sturgeon ‘cracklin’. Vancouver Chef Jefferson Alvarez of Cacao presented a stunning sturgeon plate that included a piece of the dense white fish crusted in ebony ash with a silvery piece of crispy fried sturgeon skin balanced on top.
Alvarez has long been enamoured of sturgeon. Whether it’s sturgeon ceviche, seared fatty sturgeon liver as unctuous as foie gras, puffed sturgeon skin chicharron, or the vesiga (marrow) stripped from the fish’s cartilaginous spine, Alvarez loves working with sturgeon in his creative kitchen.
“When I came to Vancouver from Europe, I found everyone was using the same fish – salmon, halibut, sablefish,” says the Venezuelan-born chef. “Sturgeon was brand new to me, but I wanted to learn about it.”
While you might not be craving the gelatinous marrow – once a delicacy of Russian Czars and served on the Titanic – the boneless fillets are mild and delicious.
“It will always be on my menu, it’s one of the most versatile fish we have,” says Alvarez.
And it’s on all of the best menus. At Vancouver’s Hawksworth, the Vietnamese Lemongrass Sturgeon ($44) is flavored with coconut, cucumber, cilantro and crispy garlic. Edible Canada chefs smoke the sturgeon and serve it atop an organic kale salad with puffed wild rice, pickled beets, butternut squash and tahini vinaigrette ($23). At Blue Water Café, the sturgeon is topped with a pumpernickel crust and served with a creamy cauliflower puree and an agro dolce sauce (37.50), while at Pier 73 Restaurant in Richmond, they’ve replaced halibut with sturgeon for fish and chips, and serve sturgeon crab cake appetizers.
COOKING THE NEW WHITE FISH
The dense fish is described as “delicately flavoured” and meaty, similar to pork or veal in texture. Because it doesn’t flake like most white fish, it doesn’t fall apart on the barbecue and may skewered for kebabs.
Some chefs told me its best grilled, while others avoid grilling and favour pan-frying or roasting. Some use it like meat in curries or stews, or raw in sushi and ceviche.
Ned Bell, chef for the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, recommends smoking sturgeon or steaming the fish, Chinese style.
“It’s incredibly dense, similar to swordfish, and it loves to be cured and smoked,” says Bell. “Steaming is a delicate way of cooking it, then add a sweet, salty, sour sauce.”
The ideal is to just barely undercook the fish, so that it will finish cooking while resting and remain juicy in the centre.
“We have grilled, pan-fried, moist-baked in wine/cream and steamed it, served in soup, with beurre blanc, smoked and served it cold on a platter with a remoulade or avocado lime cream,” says Debbie Shore, chef instructor and chair of VIU’s culinary institute. “It is very versatile.”
Shore says sturgeon is best cooked “to the just done state.”
“If it’s underdone it’s chewy, and if its overdone can be dry, as with any fish,” says Shore who suggests cooking sturgeon for 7 to 8 minutes per inch of fish as a rough guideline.
Cornel Ceapa of Atlantic Sturgeon and Caviar, has lots of ideas for cooking his products: “The wild loins must be treated similar to beef. Age it or marinated at least 24 hours, cook it either medium rare or braise it. Do not dry it! Makes also a nice ceviche or tartare!
For ground sturgeon, I’m thinking about fish cakes, Asian-style fish balls with ginger and garlic, “meatballs” poached in a spicy tomato gumbo, even fish cakes and burgers. Ceapa says the cartilage and bone marrow may be used in soups, a substitute for shark fin, or made into chips.
Most of the sturgeon served in Vancouver and Victoria restaurants is farmed fish from Northern Divine. It’s sold direct or through Albion Fisheries (InterCity Packers) wholesale, and at some fish mongers. Northern Divine’s General Manager Justin Henry says the company sells 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of fresh fish per week, year round, and produces herbs and watercress in its aquaponics systems. You’ll also find smoked Northern Divine and ICSS sturgeon sold in a can.
Acadian Sturgeon sells its wild Atlantic and farmed shortnose or Atlantic sturgeon (whole fish, fillets, marrow and offal) to chefs across the country, too. You can also order their fillets (and caviar) online for direct delivery from Costco.ca
All farmed fish should be purged before harvesting, says Switzer, to avoid any muddy flavours leftover from feeding.
Another strange quirk of sturgeon? Unlike other fish, pristinely fresh sturgeon is not the best – in fact, it should be “aged” for at least a week before cooking.
“We age it in the cooler on ice, the muscle relaxes and the texture of the fish becomes softer,” says Henry, adding sturgeon has a very long shelf life.
There’s been steady growth in sales and “such positive feedback from chefs” that Henry says consumers will likely see more sturgeon in restaurants and at retail.
And with education and aquaponics expertise right here on Vancouver Island, sturgeon may soon be coming to a farm near you.
SOUTH INDIAN FISH CURRY
This recipe, for a mild fish curry, comes via Harsiddakumar Patel, a 2008 graduate of the Culinary Institute of Vancouver Island and is published in the 2009 CIVI Cookbook. Thanks to Chef Instructor Debbie Shore for sharing.
400 gr fish filet (preferably white and lean fish like sturgeon)
2 tbsp oil
1 tbsp black mustard seed
1 large onion, chopped fine
5 fresh curry leaves (optional)
½ cup fresh grated coconut (optional)
300 ml coconut milk
100 ml heavy cream
½ tsp turmeric powder
100 gr semolina (sooji – available from Asian grocery)
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
oil for deep frying
Add to taste:
chili powder, salt, clove powder, white pepper
Cut fish on bias with diamond shape, season with salt and pepper and keep aside
Heat oil in pot. Just before smoking point add mustard seeds (let them pop), then immediately add onion and curry leaves together, before the mustard seeds jump out of the pan. Sauté onion on medium heat until transparent. Add grated coconut if using, coconut milk, cream and turmeric powder. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add semolina one tbsp at a time; use whisk to mix (semolina takes time to thicken; do not add too much at once. You may not use all the semolina in this recipe). Let it cook at a low heat, stirring continuously. Semolina will burn easily, so it is important to cook at a low heat. Simmer until it thickens to your liking; it should coat the back of a spoon. Garnish with fresh cilantro.
Deep fry fish in oil.
Just before serving time add fish to curry and cook about 5 minutes
Serve over hot basmati rice or naan.
Variation: instead of semolina – you can choose cornstarch, arrowroot or flour.
This story originally appeared in EAT magazine