The staff at Marshallberg Farms is a little on edge. A new batch of Russian sturgeon eggs from Germany has recently arrived and they're excitedly watching their new charges. Every two hours, around the clock, someone strides over to the wide, shallow tray where the young hatchlings' journey begins, plucking out the little fish that haven't made it and watching the movement of those that are still in the running.
"We're all excited," explained Lianne Won, who helps manage the farm owned by her father, I.J. Won. "It's a big deal for all of us and we're anxious to see how they do."
Under the necessary Fish & Wildlife import license the eggs cannot transfer planes, meaning the Wons have to pick up the eggs in Atlanta, Ga., where they originally land. The annual delivery ranges from 3,000 to 6,000 eggs at a time, Lianne said, and currently about 50 to 60 percent survive to adulthood, although they anticipate that number will increase as their experience grows.
They're breaking new ground – but as the only Russian sturgeon farm in the country, just about everything they do is groundbreaking. Tucked away off the beaten path between Marshallberg and Smyrna in Down East Carteret County, the farm is mostly unassuming from the roadway. Large metal buildings placed back off the road, a dirt driveway and a hen house off to the side. There is nothing to alert passersby that a great experiment in sustainability is happening right under their noses.
Food connoisseurs are all too familiar with the varying grades of caviar from the ancient sturgeon. While other forms of roe have been marketed similarly, true caviar only comes from sturgeon eggs, with Russian sturgeon being second in grade to the coveted Beluga. Caviar is rated by firmness, flavor and texture and the Osetra caviar, which hails from the Russian sturgeon, is near the top of the decadence scale. The color of the roe ranges from a light golden shade to dark brown and has a rich, buttery, sometimes nutty flavor.
There is a huge difference in quality, said Lianne. "They may look very similar, but it all comes down to the taste. It's hard to beat Osetra. It's like comparing a regular cut of steak to an organic, grass fed filet mignon."
Lianne warns that there are a lot of marketing tricks people use to try to pass off caviar as coming from Russian sturgeon, but the taste will always give it away. But it's not surprising as Osetra has become increasingly hard to get.
The stocks of Russian sturgeon aren't nearly as bountiful as they once were. Overfishing, pollution and dam construction that cut the fish off from their traditional spawning grounds have all played a role in its placement on the critically endangered list. It was previously the most common sturgeon found in the Danube and while some spawning still takes place, stocks are regarded as very low.
Farming is the obvious answer, however, it’s not an experiment for someone who requires an immediate return. It can take five to seven years for a Russian sturgeon to reach sexual maturity and begin producing eggs. That's five years of maintenance costs with no return. And even for those brave enough to take on the task, there's no certainty that it can ultimately earn enough to become profitable, or even to cover the cost of raising the fish. In fact, you can't even tell if the fish are male or female until they're about 3 or 4 years old.
Some varieties of sturgeon begin producing eggs in about three years, requiring less of a financial burden and offering a much faster profit. There are white and Siberian sturgeon farms in California, but, notes Lianne, it simply isn't as good as the Osetra.
Sturgeon, the world's oldest living species of fish, is interesting to look at. Boney plates run down their back making it look a bit like a prehistoric reptile. Little has changed in the look of sturgeon in the past 150 million years. What we see today is very similar to what existed when dinosaurs roamed. The fish generally grows to about 45-55 inches although they can grow much larger if conditions are right.
Marshallberg Farm maintains its stock in 40 indoor tanks in two buildings – a total of about 54,000 square feet of tank space in all. Separate processing buildings and cold storage are also on site. Its sister company, LaPaz, formerly known as Atlantic Caviar and Sturgeon, is located in Lenoir and was formerly operated by NC State University before it was purchased in 2017. Marshallberg Farm alone has the ability to produce five to seven tons of caviar and about 80 tons of raw sturgeon meat per year. Today, the state-of-the-art facility is home to about 30,000 to 40,000 fish, the first of which arrived in 2011.
As the site's first harvest nears, the fish are biopsied to check the quality of the fish eggs. The females are monitored carefully until the eggs are the right size and texture. A 20-pound female can provide up to four pounds of caviar. Once removed, the eggs are cleaned and preserved with sea salt without any other additives. Marshallberg Farm is equipped to handle all stages of the harvest as well as packaging.
While they're finding a variety of markets for the eggs, the farm is also excited to find the fish is often in demand, too. Lean, boneless and firm, with a consistency similar to pork, sturgeon holds together well, making it ideal for grilling or smoking. Lianne has found that many Russians and Armenians in the United States are especially excited about the product's availability.
"This is a traditional food for them – a taste of home," said Lianne. "We've heard stories of families taking the day off work and all coming together to celebrate and have a big meal together."
Lianne and a staff member at the Lenoir location have been creating and sampling a variety of recipes in hopes of increasing its marketability. Many people simply haven't tasted sturgeon before. Her hope is to lure them with ways of preparing the fish that are easy for home cooks.
Online sales did really well through the Christmas season, but with anything, it's a matter of getting the caviar and fish into the right market. It is, after all, an experiment; a first. And one Lianne's father, I.J., is pleased to take on.
A geophysicist and retired NC State University professor with a focus on magnetic imaging of the earth, I.J. has ventured from his career path with this new venture.
"I have two boys and we love to fish, but I get frustrated with the idea that so many fish are low in stock," he said. "You start to feel guilty about what you catch. So this is my way to prove to myself that we can grow fish that we can eat without messing up nature."
Sturgeon farming doesn't compete with local fisheries in Carteret County, which was important to I.J. and he is hopeful that the technology we have today will not only help restock the sturgeon fisheries, but perhaps other fisheries also.
"Sustainability is our goal – our dream," said I.J. "Sustainable is a great word to use, but unless you can make money it's not sustainable. OK, we can prove that we can catch fish and make money. Now, let's prove that we can raise fish and make money. I can't tell people go out and do what I do and you can make a living – but I'm hoping that I will be able to one day."