SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sample a spoonful of Tsar Nicoulai caviar at the Caviar Cafe at the Ferry Building Marketplace or a high-end San Francisco restaurant such as Gary Danko or Aphotic, and you might be surprised that the salty, buttery beads melting in your mouth aren’t from Russia or anywhere near the Caspian Sea.
They’re from Wilton, Calif., a small farming community near Sacramento. On a recent summer afternoon, Duke, the farm dog, swims splashy laps in the hyacinth ponds. Duckweed swirls in the fish tanks, cooling their piscine inhabitants. And the prehistoric snout of a sturgeon breaks the surface of the water every now and then.
Tsar Nicoulai farm is part of a vanguard of sturgeon farmers that includes Sterling Caviar and The Fishery Inc., which are reshaping the future of sustainable aquaculture. These Sacramento County farms supply roughly 90 percent of the caviar produced in the United States, according to Jackson Gross, an aquaculture expert and assistant professor at UC Davis.
It’s a relatively small portion of the global market — the U.S. provided about 18 of the 380 tons of caviar produced globally in 2018, according to an EU fisheries report. And the prices they command are comparable but slightly lower: Tsar Nicoulai caviar runs $55 to $400 per ounce compared to around $80 to $800 per ounce for Russian caviar, with rare varieties commanding prices in the four figures.
But these California purveyors are gradually and conscientiously transforming the caviar industry, while sparing the vulnerable wild sturgeon population that swims in nearby rivers.
At Tsar Nicoulai, for example, solar panels convert sunlight into power to cool fish tanks housing roughly 50,000 sturgeon. Fish excrement is turned into fertilizer. They’re developing new systems to use less water, and finding new ways to use more parts of the fish.
“Farming white sturgeon is one of the great conservation success stories in North America that no one really talks much about,” Gross says.
So how did this Russian-sounding caviar producer end up here? Tsar Nicoulai was actually born in the USA, a stroke of marketing brilliance by a pair of Swedish San Franciscans after they discovered the Cali-forward branding for their fledgling caviar company, California Sunshine Inc., wasn’t getting anywhere.
Mats and Dafne Engstrom had become curious about the Delta’s wild sturgeon in the 1980s. The idea of caviar from California, instead of Russia or Iran, fascinated them. The sturgeon aquaculture movement was just starting — the predecessor to Sterling started sturgeon production in Wilton in 1983. Inspired, the Engstroms decided to open a farm in the same town in 1984 with help from Russian-born UC Davis scientist Serge Doroshov, who was known as the “father of sturgeon aquaculture.”
Doroshov’s research found that these immense fish — which average 4 to 6 feet long and 80 to 110 pounds when mature but can grow up to 20 feet in length — can reach maturity much faster in a farm setting than in the wild. That rate has accelerated over the years. Today, the average reproductive age for farmed sturgeon is 6 years compared with 24 in the wild, a change wrought by farmers who optimize the sturgeons’ diets, oxygen levels and water temperatures. Over the generations, faster-reproducing sturgeon have become a larger proportion of the farmed fish population overall, Gross said.
At the hatchery, now owned by Ali and Marai Bolourchi, thousands of baby sturgeon or “fingerlings” swim in tanks sheltered not just from the sun, but from hawks who might see a tank of tasty baby fish as the perfect venue for a feeding frenzy. Roughly a dozen staffers live on-site to care for the sturgeon at every level of development. It’s a task assisted by tank technology which sends out smartphone alerts if oxygen levels or temperatures start to change.
Fish technician and resident sturgeon whisperer Roman Sanchez says caring for the baby fish is his favorite part of the job. As he talks about the fingerlings, he deftly nets a rare albino sturgeon, swimming in a tank with a thousand other fish and nearly impossible to see against the tank’s white backdrop. He checks on the fingerling, then gently releases it back into the tank.
With their armor of triangular bumps or scutes, sturgeon don’t just look prehistoric. The species dates back 200 million years — to the days of the dinosaurs — according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. But wild sturgeon are struggling in today’s changing world.
Last summer, hundreds of sturgeon died and washed ashore in the Delta and San Francisco and San Pablo bays during a major red algal bloom. It was the largest sturgeon die-off recorded in the Bay Area estuary.
But the fish on the Wilton farm are protected from such hazards. The farm runs on a recirculated water system, which helps to clean the effluent from the fish tanks. Those byproducts are rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, so for decades, the farm has sent that effluent into ponds where they grow hyacinths. In turn, the plants absorb the waste and water can be recirculated back to the fish tanks.
“They’re basically Mother Nature’s organic biofilter,” Ali Bolourchi says.
For the last eight years, Bolourchi and his team have worked toward increasing sustainability in a range of areas, including water and energy conservation, and moves toward solar power self-sufficiency that earned them a 2018 environmental stewardship award from Whole Foods, which carries the brand.
The same year saw the start of a long-term partnership with David Agus and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison’s Sensei Farms to use that nutrient-rich fish tank water to grow produce. Since then, Bolourchi has invested in a new type of fish tank — set to begin testing on Sept. 15 — that will convert the fish effluent directly into fertilizer.
When they’re ready for harvest, between 750 and 1,250 sturgeon are taken each year to the on-site smokehouse and a collection of sterile, frigid rooms, where the focus is on minimizing waste by using as much of the fish as possible. For caviar, yes, but also smoked sturgeon, sturgeon pâté and more, bound for local markets and for the Caviar Cafe at the San Francisco Ferry Building, where Marai Bolourchi serves dishes such as cornbread madeleines paired with honey, vanilla crème fraîche and golden osetra caviar.
And then the cycle begins anew, each generation growing faster to keep up with demand.