BRADENTON BEACH — Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, it must be Robin Leach's favorite holiday. Today is National Caviar Day.
In anticipation, last week the Beach House on Bradenton Beach hosted a lecture and tasting of Black Opal caviar, the much-anticipated farm-raised black sturgeon caviar developed at Mote Marine Laboratories. More than $1 million worth of high-quality black caviar, produced from farm-raised Siberian sturgeon, debuted in November and has been widely embraced by chefs and retailers, compared favorably to domestic products like Sterling and other big players from California.
Buttery, rich, nutty, earthy, salty, fishy, with a satisfying pop and a pearly black opacity, it's good stuff — the definition of that elusive savory fifth flavor called umami. (As Beach House owner Ed Chiles said of it enthusiastically: "It's umami and u-daddy.")
But this is more than a story about fancy black fish roe.
What Healthy Earth, a sustainable food company in Sarasota, and Mote are doing through a public-private partnership affects all of us, not just the 1 percent.
About 90 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and about half of this is wild-caught. The other half is aquaculture, the term used for fish farming and stocking sea creatures in wild bodies of water. Asia dominates global aquaculture production, China alone accounting for 62 percent of global production.
Why does this matter? There is a looming specter, the specter of an enormous and growing Chinese middle class. Here's what happens when folks do better financially: They eat better, and specifically they eat more animal protein. China has historically been a net seafood exporter. What's going to happen when domestic demand skyrockets?
Their seafood, wild and farmed, stays in China, spoken for.
We need farm-raised fish in this country, and we need them pronto.
Florida's Gulf Coast is the only place in America bordered by three national estuaries, supporting rich and diverse wildlife. Also, it is home to a thriving cluster of marine sciences research facilities and businesses. Those businesses are finding higher purposes by solving real-world problems.
"Aquaculture creates leadership, jobs and better food," said Healthy Earth partner Paul Brooke. "There's no reason we couldn't establish the Silicon Valley of aquaculture here."
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Caviar used to mean one thing: the Caspian Sea, the world's largest saltwater lake. Beluga, osetra and sevruga were flown around the world to service fancy-pants parties, gourmands dabbing it onto tiny blini with mother-of-pearl spoons. The Caspian trade was controlled by its border countries, the Soviet Union and Iran, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union it became the Wild West. The Caspian Sea was woefully overfished, with species like the beluga becoming critically endangered. In 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importation of beluga.
And thus the world market for fish eggs opened up, and countries like Belarus, Norway and China stepped into the void.
There are problems. Unscrupulous caviar companies may harvest the roe sacks and dump the sturgeon carcasses, uneaten, back into the water. That's not a sustainable model. And experts say Chinese caviar often contains borax as a preservative, a substance banned in this country. Unfortunate, Chiles says, because "China is dumping huge quantities of low-cost caviar on the market like crazy."
Wild fish supplies already have peaked and are in decline. Freshwater, by and large, is spoken for. You can't co-opt rivers to do fish farming. So the trick will be how to develop fish farming technologies that are sustainable and can be scaled up.
Mote and Healthy Earth's agenda is to do just that. Jim Michaels, the sturgeon program manager for Healthy Eart, explains that at their production facility, the water from the retention ponds never leaves the place, the fish waste never making it out into the watershed. It's a closed loop.
Mote is not alone. There are innovative aquaculture programs under way at several universities, including Miami, Cornell, the University of California at Davis and Louisiana State. But, Michaels says, the amount of funding for aquaculture in the United States versus China or Japan is embarrassing.
The future is clear, he says. That 90 percent of seafood that we import? It isn't going to be there much longer.
"We're either going to have to develop the technology or there are going to be seafood wars."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.