Dressed against the New Brunswick winter, Dr. Cornel Ceapa is leaning over a tank three-and-a-half metres across and filled with grey-green water. The reflective surface betrays no sign of life until the still is broken by an eddy.
Ceapa, who looks older and more distinguished than most men of 43, tosses in a handful of dry food pellets. Nothing happens – no piranha-like thrashing. “Sturgeon are picky eaters,” says Ceapa, his native Romanian inflecting the rhythm of his speech. “They don't rush around like salmon or trout.” Sturgeon, he says, are bottom feeders; they like to check out their food before they eat it.
In this and another 32 tanks in a small warehouse near Carters Point, 30 kilometres from Saint John, are some 7,000 short-nose sturgeon. On another rented property are an additional 3,000 Atlantic sturgeon, maturing in the so-called grow-out. These are the eldest of Ceapa's progeny – four-year-olds, the largest of them just over a metre long. The president of Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar is waiting for these females to spawn the eggs he hopes will make his fortune.
Caviar: The very word conjures visions of luxury and excess – excess of cash, in particular. Depending on the type – beluga, osetra, sevruga – and the provenance, a kilo of caviar retails for between $1,700 and $6,000. Since one Atlantic sturgeon can yield as much as 50 kilograms of eggs in one season, it's small wonder Canadian aquaculture is seeing a gold rush. Ceapa's small operation is just one of the players vying to fill the demand.
But there's one big problem: Sturgeon farmers like Ceapa have to wait – and wait and wait – to start harvesting eggs, since it's difficult to determine the gender of a sturgeon before its fourth year. And the fish that prove to be female won't begin spawning – in other words, laying those lucrative eggs – for at least another five years (far longer in the wild). That's if the process isn't delayed by genetic or environmental factors. In the meantime, the fish need to be fed and housed in increasingly larger tanks (a full-grown Atlantic sturgeon can weigh up to hundreds of kilograms). “Sturgeon are endangered by their very biology,” says Ceapa. “They mature late and they live long. A fish that matures in one year has a better chance of perpetuating the species.”
Further, while many aquaculture species can spawn three times in one year, sturgeon females only spawn every second year. And when the grey-black eggs are ready for harvesting, you'd better have a ready market, because they are perishable. Sealed and refrigerated, they can keep for three or four months; once exposed to air, they keep for only a few days.
Ceapa is unconcerned. He has a plan: Start small and build slowly.
Sturgeon are one of nature's more complicated beasts, and Ceapa has devoted the greater part of his life to studying them. As a biology student at Romania's Lower Danube University, he watched the river's sturgeon stock dwindle, the victims of overfishing and pollution. The story was writ large in the Caspian Sea, home of the huso huso sturgeon, bearer of the storied beluga caviar, which have since been overfished into near extinction. Thus was spawned Ceapa's doctoral thesis, co-sponsored by the Université Bordeaux I: “Sturgeon biology and management on the Danube River.” All this to say, Ceapa knows his sturgeon.
PhD in hand, Ceapa immigrated to Canada in 2003 with his wife, Dorina, and their son, Michael, seeking a better life and, of course, sturgeon. “I knew where the sturgeon were in Canada,” Ceapa says, “so it was East Coast or West Coast.” The East won out when he landed a position as a research assistant at the University of New Brunswick, at a salary of $20,000. Caviar wasn't on the Ceapa household's menu, but it did lead to post-doctoral research supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, with Ceapa liaising between the UNB and Gray's Aqua Farms, a local salmon grower looking to diversify into sturgeon.