Travelers whizzing past Southern Idaho's sagebrush desert on I-84 are likely thinking about anything but caviar. Rattlesnakes, lava rocks and the next restroom, sure. But not glistening black beads of high-end sturgeon roe.
And yet, just to the south of the highway, often hidden below the rim of the Snake River Canyon, flows its namesake river, home to one of the world's oldest living species of vertebrates and one of America's newest forms of aquaculture: sturgeon. With fossil records dating back 150 million years, these giant fish are native to the Snake River, but sturgeon farming along its shores is only about 10 years old. In that short time, though, Idaho has become one of America's major caviar producers.
"There's some of the big mammas ready for caviar," says Leo Ray.
Ray, an Idaho sturgeon farming pioneer, points just past his shoes as a huge sturgeon silently swims down one of several, 100-foot-long concrete raceways at Fish Processors of Idaho, his fish farm near Hagerman. With spring water, geothermal resources and close proximity to the Snake River, the Hagerman Valley is Idaho's fish-farming epicenter, and Ray has farmed species like trout, tilapia and catfish here for decades. Sturgeon is a new fascination for him.
"That fish is about 7 or 8 feet long, weighs about 200 pounds," Ray says of the partially armored, slightly menacing-looking white sturgeon that slides by. "The biggest one we actually processed weighed about 250 to 275 pounds."
The largest sturgeon ever recorded being pulled from the Snake River was a 1,500-pound mammoth caught in 1911 not far from Ray's place, just below Upper Salmon Falls. Early Idaho settlers often caught sturgeon on thick rope lines. Some of those fish were more than 12 feet long, their tails were said to drag on the ground as they were hauled away in horse-drawn wagons. But dam construction, beginning in the 1950s, quickly cut the range and food sources available to sturgeon. Today the fish still swim the Snake River but in much smaller numbers.
In an attempt to increase that remnant population, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Idaho Aquaculture Association and the College of Southern Idaho began catching native sturgeon in the late 1980s, breeding them in captivity. Fish and Game used most of the eggs to bolster the native population but provided the surplus to fish farmers like Ray, thus creating both a conservation program and a new species for Idaho's aquaculture industry.
"It's a very enjoyable fish to work with," Ray says in his soft Oklahoma drawl.
The female sturgeon live for up to 10 years before maturing enough to harvest for meat and caviar--in the wild, sturgeon can live for a century or more.
"And it's a new species," Ray says. "So everything you do you're learning."
When it comes to fish and fish farming, Ray likes to learn. Back in Oklahoma during his college days, he planned to major in wildlife conservation. Then, when Ray was an undergraduate, a professor with a new grant asked Ray to assist him in a study of catfish and catfish farming. Ray never looked back. He went on to build a catfish farm in California, then in 1973 moved to the Hagerman Valley.
"[I] saw the hot water and built a catfish farm," Ray says.
Thirty years later, in 2003, Ray made his first batch of caviar, a diminutive 20 pounds worth. Although caviar production isn't complicated, it is precision work, requiring a delicate touch in order to produce a product that can compete against the best caviars in the world.
"In this room we separate the eggs from the ovary by passing them across these screens," Ray says as two women in hairnets and gloves deftly dislodge sturgeon roe that may sell for close to $100 an ounce--quality, and therefore price, can vary from fish to fish. One of those women weighs the caviar on a small scale, calculating how much salt to add and then carefully folds the salt into the fragile, glossy-black eggs. The mixture rests for a few minutes and is then hand-packed into small tins where the caviar may cure for anywhere from a few days to several years.
Idaho's farmed sturgeon industry began growing just as wild stocks of the famed Caspian Sea fish, like beluga from Russia and Iran, were falling into steep decline.
"When the Soviet Union controlled most of the countries around the Caspian Sea, the Soviet Union had a very good management program," Ray explains. "When the Soviet Union collapsed, that controlled program collapsed. As a result the Caspian Sea was over harvested."
Several years ago, national and international organizations enacted bans on the sale and importation of Caspian and Black Sea caviar. Idaho wasn't alone in taking advantage of those bans. Farmed sturgeon industries opened in Europe, China and Uruguay as well as America.
Idaho, California and Florida are the only U.S. states seriously involved in sturgeon farming and caviar production. California dwarfs the others in volume, but Idaho remains unique in basing its industry on native fish and raising those fish in raceways supplied by spring water. Ray says that gives Idaho a big advantage over California and Florida, where fish are raised in large tanks supplied by recirculated groundwater.
"You can taste the Idaho spring water in our caviar," he says.
But what impact does sturgeon farming have on Idaho's spring water?
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which evaluates the environmental consequences of fishing and fish farming through its Seafood Watch program, rates farmed American caviar and sturgeon meat as "good" consumer choices. In a 2007 report, the aquarium concluded that the risk of farmed sturgeon escaping into the wild or associated pollution harming native populations was low. The organization did express concern over the industry's "extensive use of marine resources in the form of feed," meaning that large carnivores like sturgeon require commensurately large amounts of fish protein and fish oil to survive. Those feeds are sourced from wild fisheries, but Ray says research is being done to produce fish meal that uses fewer wild ocean resources.
Terry Patterson, professor in the aquaculture program at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, says there's also another potential positive environmental consequence of sturgeon farming.
"I hope the farm-raised product and that entrepreneurial spirit in Idaho and around the world helps take some of the pressure off the illegal harvest of some of the endangered stocks," Patterson says.
Ray's Fish Processors of Idaho now produces 300 pounds of caviar a year. He hopes to increase that dramatically as more of his farmed sturgeon mature. Although Ray only sells his caviar domestically, he's gotten requests from as far away as Israel and Australia. George H.W. Bush served a batch of Ray's caviar at a party a few years ago.
After spending a little time with Ray, you get the impression that he's far less motivated by the high-living, celebrity side of the caviar business than by his nearly lifelong interest in the science of aquaculture.
Sturgeon and sturgeon caviar are just new aquacultural challenges that keep him engaged.
"Well, that's what makes fish farming so enjoyable," Ray says. "You're working in a very clean environment, a very enjoyable environment. And there's a romance to fish."