Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Abu Dhabi’s resurgence of sturgeon

An indoor Caspian caviar farm in Abu Dhabi, with the largest capacity in the world, is working hard to keep endangered species of Siberian sturgeon alive and flipping - with a a bold eventual aim of reintroducing the species to the wild.
Ahmed Al Dhaheri, the co-founder and managing director at Emirates Aquatech, stands by a tank full of sturgeon hatchlings that were bred in the UAE. Photos Ravindranath K / The National
Ahmed Al Dhaheri, the co-founder and managing director at Emirates Aquatech, stands by a tank full of sturgeon hatchlings that were bred in the UAE. Photos Ravindranath K / The National

Think of caviar and it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi would come to mind as a source of the highly sought after fish eggs.

Moves have begun to change that with an indoor Caspian caviar farm in the capital putting all its effort into keeping the endangered Siberian sturgeon alive and flipping – with a bold aim of eventually reintroducing it to the wild.

At the same time the farm is working on one day being the largest caviar producer in the world.

Last month, as the country was applauding Dubai’s Expo 2020 win, Emirates Aqua Technologies’ Caviar Factory was celebrating its first successful batch of Emirati sturgeon eggs to be bred and hatched entirely in the UAE.

“We have named them internally as Expo 2020. They will be ready to give caviar before Expo 2020 but we have called them that because some of them will give caviar up until that year,” says Ahmed Al Dhaheri, 44, the co-founder and managing director at Emirates Aquatech.

The hatching was symbolic of the farm’s desire to promote a sustainable business model that is based on breeding its own sturgeon rather than catching them wild or hatching eggs that have been fertilised elsewhere and imported.

“Now we have a fresh batch of hatched eggs that is Emirati 100 per cent,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“Some think this would only be suitable in Siberia, the Caspian Sea and that part of the world, but with the technology and the capabilities anything can be done.

“Alhamdulillah, we managed to get those with the help of the right people and technology.”

He says the 56,000-square-metre farm will eventually produce 35 tonnes of caviar and 700 tonnes of sturgeon meat a year.

“But this project is not merely about producing caviar and making money,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“The other aspect of the project is the environment; the saving of the species. We want to make a wider range of products available in an environment where supply and demand can be controlled.

“There are two aspects to the business. One is the production and the economical side of it; the capacity and the markets and where to sell. The other side is the fish itself and how it’s grown – who is this fish and why is it so special?”

Siberian sturgeons are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest and oldest environmental organisation.

It is being overfished and many of the Siberian sturgeon’s natural breeding spots have been lost to pollution, power plant development and other industrial activity.

Mr Al Dhaheri says the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) recognised this shortly after he and his brother conceived of the idea of building a caviar farm in 2006.

It added impetus to their project because it established that the species needed to be protected.

“Caviar is still demanded around the world and if people were still harvesting from the wild then this fish might have been gone by now,” he says.

To begin production, the private joint stock company had to secure licences from local and international bodies, such as Cites, the EU and food authorities in Abu Dhabi.

“We cannot sell caviar to anyone without having the licence,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“They want to know that you will be growing this fish in a way that will sustain production, make caviar available to the world and save fish from being extinct naturally.

“This is what we are doing here. There are other farms with smaller capacity, smaller numbers of fish, but here we have 300,000 fish, and the numbers are going to grow.”

Females can only have caviar extracted once in a lifetime as the process kills the fish. But Mr Al Dhaheri says none of the sturgeon goes to waste.

The factory has spent the past few years training staff on how to treat, care for, feed and process the fish for the caviar, meat, skin and bones. This was necessary to receive accreditation and certification.

Its first batch of pre-fertilised eggs were hatched just over two years ago. It has since hatched three more, including the Expo 2020 batch.

“From an economical point of view, this is the world’s largest farm like this in terms of the production capacity,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“There are other plants that produce four or five or even eight tonnes, but there’s no single factory or farm that can produce this in such an environment.

“The sturgeon meat can go into smoked fillet, or spiced fillets, fresh cut – anything, depending on the customers requirements.”

Under this model, the facility would eventually have enough surplus to release some sturgeon into their natural habitat.

To produce sustainable levels of sturgeon, whether for meat or caviar, is no mean feat.

It takes about six years for females to produce caviar in the wild, which, through controlled conditions, Aquatech is able to reduce to three or four.

“This depends on the environment, the different seasons, the feed, the water temperature and how you look after them,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

The hatchery and basins maintain optimal water temperature, food levels and other important aspects to speed maturity.

Mr Al Dhaheri says the eventual 35 tonnes of caviar will be enough to meet 10 per cent of the world’s Caspian caviar demand and a growing appetite for the meat.

Adult sturgeons are large, weighing an average of 65 kilograms. Females produce a large yield of dark caviar and, according to Mr Al Dhaheri, sturgeon meat is lean.

“This is where the environmental aspect of the project comes in. The skin can be produced in very different varieties of leather goods and the bones, the head, the tail can go into by-products as well,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“It is not like the fish is killed and it goes into the garbage.

“The water that the fish swim in needs to be discharged from time to time because it’s full of natural nutrients. It is helpful for irrigation.”

Mr Al Dhaheri shows off a leather strap made of sturgeon skin. “The skin could go into different types of products. This was made at a local factory between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain,” he says.

Even though breeding is a large part of the business model, and means the farm will not be a threat to the species’ existence in the wild, the company’s goal is not to run a breeding programme – Aquatech is a private company and the fish are bred for their by-products.

“The sturgeon fish has been around since prehistoric times. When you see a fish that has been around for millions of years, you don’t want it to be gone because people are taking advantage of mother nature without giving anything back,” Mr Al Dhaheri says.

“This is part of it – the social awareness, the sustainability awareness, the future of our generations to come. We have laid down such things for them so they can join in the future and we’re hoping that other projects will come to Abu Dhabi.”

halbustani@thenational.ae

Updated: January 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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