Monday, March 17, 2014

SENA14: Estuario del Plata Caviar

Prior to the Seafood Expo North America, and through the power of social media, I connected online with Facundo Marquez, the General Manager of a new seafood company, Estuario del Plata. I saw the potential for an intriguing story and planned to meet him at the Expo to learn more about his company, a sustainable sturgeon farm in Uruguay. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to get an inside view of a company with plenty of potential.

The family behind Estuario del Plata was previously involved in agriculture but realized that aquaculture is the way of the future so they decided to investigate and research the possibilities. In Uruguay, they knew of Esturiones Del Rio Negro, the Black River Caviar company, which was been successfully raising sturgeon. It was the only sturgeon farm in the Southern Hemisphere, their caviar has received much positive press, and that seemed like an opportunity. Black River Caviar had consulted with a Russian to help create their operation, and it appears that Russian satellite surveys of the geography and watersheds of Uruguay had indicated it was a perfect area to raise sturgeon. Estuario del Plata hired that same Russian to help them with their own plans for a sturgeon farm.

In 2011, they purchased their first sturgeon eggs from the Russians and have three types of sturgeon. Their fish farm is located in San Gregorio de Polanco at the Rincón del Bonete Reservoir on the River Negro. The farm has a potential production capability of 10 tons of caviar and 700 tons of sturgeon meat per year, though they are nowhere near that production level yet. The entire sturgeon’s breeding cycle takes place on this farm, from spawn to final fattening. They also built their own facility to produce fish feed, which is all natural.

The fishery applies state of the art technology, and they believe their operation is sustainable, following the highest standards and best practices. They do not possess any third party certification as to their sustainability but Facundo indicated that was in the process. I can't say whether they are sustainable or not, but it sounds like it has potential, especially considering the status of the other sturgeon farm in Uruguay. However, we must remember that Estuario del Plata is still very new, and even hasn't sold any caviar yet.

Their first caviar harvest should be later this year, and then they will conduct taste tests, hoping to be able to sell some caviar by the end of 2014. Next year, they hope to harvest about 1 ton of caviar and their goal is to have 5-6 tons in the next few years. As they mainly need female sturgeon, they have been selling the males as meat, primarily to Russia and the Baltic states, with a small sampling sent to some New York City restaurants. Facundo noted that as the seasons are opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, that means they will harvest their caviar annually just before the winter holiday season, the perfect time to sell a luxury like caviar.

Facundo remarked that everything has been a challenge, though they have been working closely with Black River. He remains positive though that they can overcome all of the challenges and soon start selling a sustainable and delicious caviar.

Will Uruguay end up as a new hotspot for sturgeon farms and caviar? Are we seeing the origins of such an aquaculture industry in the Southern Hemisphere? I don't know what their caviar will eventually taste like but I will continue to follow the story of Estuario del Plata, to monitor their progress. I wish them much luck in their endeavor.

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