But in 2005, Gray's owners got cold feet: With farm-raised salmon booming, they decided they couldn't wait for the sturgeon. They gave their research biologist the bad news: They were shutting down their operation. For Ceapa, two years into his life in Canada, with no credit history, it was a defining moment: “I had an option. I knew a fisherman that had some land and could accommodate a fish farm. Do I continue work at the university or start my own business?” Ceapa found a buyer in North Carolina who was interested in the experimental farm's stock of aquacultured live fish. An early indicator of Ceapa's business savvy: He raised the money to buy Gray's sturgeon infrastructure by persuading the Carolinians to pay half up front. That $25,000 advance and a $75,000 small-business loan from a local bank, plus the sturgeon he held in reserve, put Ceapa in the driver's seat. “I am the principal financier,” he says proudly.
Acadian is literally a mom-and-pop operation. At its busiest, during summer spawning - when selected fish are harvested not just for their eggs but also for their flesh - the firm employs five, not including Ceapa and his wife and son. During the low season, it's just the Ceapa family and two technicians. Michael Ceapa is a multitasker, handling everything from smoking and packaging the sturgeon meat to IT and website design. Dorina, who salts and mixes the eggs into caviar, also does the books. When he isn't caring for his property or conducting Caesarian sections on 100-kilogram fish, Ceapa is helping his hired fishermen pull up the nets on their boat.
Ceapa relies on wild-caught Atlantic sturgeon – measuring up to 2-¾ metres long – to stay afloat while he watches his farmed fish mature. A permit from Fisheries and Oceans Canada allows him to catch up to 300 of the fish a year; as part of the deal, he measures, tags and releases half of what he brings in. “We could hire people to do what we do, but we prefer to be on the boat,” says Ceapa. The fish he takes, he harvests for caviar and meat. Both are packaged in-house, certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and then Fedexed in Styrofoam boxes and frozen gel packs to online customers, distributors, retail outlets and restaurants from St. John's to Vancouver. Toronto is his No. 1 market – a 30-gram tin of his wild-caught caviar, served with crème fraîche, will set you back $65 at Oyster Boy on Toronto's Queen Street West.
Ceapa also generates revenue selling aquaculture stock, from 60 mature, wild-caught brood sturgeon. The company ships fertilized eggs and smolts (recently hatched fish) to sturgeon farms in Taiwan and China, where the meat is widely consumed. Last year, one shipment of 200,000 larvae travelled, via regular air cargo, door-to-door in 48 hours. Acadian also sells fish for restocking in regions where sturgeon have been extirpated (the short-nose is genetically similar to sturgeon that once inhabited the Baltic Sea before they disappeared due to overfishing). And the company has a small sideline selling live fish to researchers and aquariums. All told, Acadian had 2010 revenue of $350,000. Ceapa is projecting revenue of $600,000 for 2011.
It's not big money, but that's part of Ceapa's strategy. “We grow our cash flow as we grow the business,” he says. He has also grown his shareholders, who own about 20% of Acadian. One of them is his neighbour, the owner of an industrial plumbing company. Given Acadian's many tanks, metres of pipes and feeder tubes, and myriad pumps for well-water, plus his proprietary recirculation and heating system, “you can imagine how useful that's been,” says Ceapa. This neighbour also lends him a front-end loader, a useful tool for carrying giant fish from the operating theatre to the recovery pool. The other shareholder is Ceapa's former PhD supervisor at Bordeaux I, Dr. Patrick Williot, an expert on sturgeon aquaculture in France.