An Israeli version of a gourmet treat

The Israeli researchers were able to speed up the fertility stage in which the female sturgeon produced the eggs from which the caviar is made.Forget the gefilte fish – bring on the caviar with the Made in Israel tag. For …

The Israeli researchers were able to speed up the fertility stage in which the female sturgeon produced the eggs from which the caviar is made.Forget the gefilte fish – bring on the caviar with the Made in Israel tag. For the first time, the culinary delicacy is being produced from sturgeon roe grown in an Israeli fish farm.

And thanks to Israeli scientific savvy, the process by which fish reach maturity and can lay their eggs, has been cut nearly by half: to seven or eight years instead of 12 to 14. The accomplishment was the result of more than a decade of research undertaken by Galilee Caviar, a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms in the north of the country, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“The research began about 12 years ago,” said Prof. Dan Levanon, the ministry’s chief scientist. “Our idea was to try to grow sturgeon artificially in fish ponds.”

Levanon explained that historically, almost all caviar originates from sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea close to the former USSR and Iran. Since the break up of the USSR, the hazards of over fishing, and habitat loss and pollution, there has been dramatic decline in sturgeon populations in the Caspian, and diminishing harvests of caviar.

By 1998, the decline was so pronounced that an international committee known as CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) indicated that without international actions, there was an imminent threat of extinction of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. This action has led to tight regulation and control of the international trade of all caviar from all species worldwide.

Dan Fish Farms, owned by and located on Kibbutz Dan, close to the Lebanese border in the north of Israel, has specialized for years in developing new species for agriculture, fish vaccines and vaccination systems, fish feeds and feeding experiments and assimilation of biotechnology products in fish.

According to Avshalom Hurvitz, a biologist with the company, the changing nature of the caviar industry due to the shortage of sturgeon, prompted the launch of the program in 1994.

“We aimed at monitoring and controlling the maturation of the female sturgeon,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Since sturgeon do not exist naturally in Israel, Galilee Caviar – a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms – was founded to oversee the project. They initially imported a small amount sturgeons from Russia, which were raised in fish farms at the kibbutz.

According to Levanon, the focus of the project was to learn how to grow the fish artificially.

“That’s taken the bulk of the time – growing fish artificially instead of in a river. We have fish ponds in the north with water taken from the Dan River – the optimal temperature is not higher than 23 degrees Celsius. After many years, we’ve succeeded in this stage,” he said.

The next step in the process was to speed up the fertility stage in which the female sturgeon produced the eggs from which the caviar is made.

“In order to produce caviar from the eggs of the female, they need to get to the fertility stage, which in nature takes anywhere between 10-14 years. So for the last two years, we’ve worked on decreasing the time it takes to reach the fertility stage. And we’ve succeeded in producing amounts of caviar from the female after only seven to eight years,” said Levanon.

Initially, Caviar Hagalil has produced its first 20 kg of caviar. In Western markets, caviar can be sold for up to $2,000 per kilo.

“We’ve given samples to several chefs, and we’ve gotten a very high ranking,” said Hurvitz, who’s studing for his Phd at Hebrew University’s school of agriculture. “Our goal is to produce 4,000 kg. of caviar per year, and we hope to achieve this by the end of 2007.”

“We’re now working hard to develop a protocol of production which will enable this to occur regularly – it’s mainly to due the controlled conditions – optimal food and optimal temperature, and they’ll grow faster and reach a fertile age earlier,” added Levanon.

For Hurvitz, the experiment in raising sturgeon is a natural extension of his work at the Dan Fish Farms.

“We raise all different kinds of freshwater fish – mainly rainbow trout – about 350 tons a year and about 200 tons of carp,” he said.

Being around the scaly creatures so much hasn’t dulled his taste for fresh fish, with rainbow trout being his professed favorite. Hurvitz admitted, that before he began working on the caviar project, he had never tasted the delicacy before.

“Before we started the caviar project, I didn’t anything about it, and had never tasted it. Now I’ve tasted it, and like it very much,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, I’ve been to Russia as part of our research and tasted the original from the Caspian, and I’ve tried ours. And in my unprofessional view, our product is very, very good.”