This is a certified translation of a German article about caviar farming: - Gemolkene Fische / (pdf) - "Milking Fish" by Der Spiegel - August 22, 2015. (See footnotes for context.)
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Milking Fish

A renowned marine biologist wanted to make ethically-produced caviar. The fish farm has now gone bankrupt and the taxpayers' money is gone.
..... milking fish - caviar article -  click to read the original article in Der Spiegel

Many technological revolutions started life in a simple garage. History could have been made in a windowless hangar in the Loxstedt-Siedewurt industrial estate on the edge of the port of Bremerhaven. The innovation that was puzzled out there could at least have eased the conscience of wealthy foodies all around the world. A bleak structure next to a concrete factory is home to the firm Vivace. The owner's great aim was to produce caviar in an ethical way.

"Until now it has only been possible to extract caviar from immature sturgeon eggs," says Angela Köhler, a researcher at the renowned Alfred-Wegner-Institut in Bremerhaven, explaining her requirements. That means that the prehistoric sturgeon, some varieties of which are at imminent risk of extinction, have to be slaughtered. But thanks to a new patent, that was developed by her and is now protected in 99 countries, Köhler says that these animals no longer need to die. Mature fish eggs from living sturgeon can now be hardened and processed later. Instead of a bloodbath, this luxury product can now be extracted by gently massaging the belly of the fish. Sturgeon can continue producing caviar again and again throughout their long life.

But now the touching story of fish that can be milked like cows has come to a sad end. 14 months after production started in Loxstedt, the sturgeon farm has run out of money, allegedly because its main investor from Switzerland has bailed. Since July, a preliminary liquidator has been in charge of 10,000 fish in 77 tanks.

The European Union and the Federal State of Lower Saxony pumped €667,000 into the scheme as recently as June (2015), but officials are now worried about that aid money. And since then it has become clear that the idea of cleanly produced caviar was really a dubious marketing fairytale for extracting money from donors and customers.

The State Government in Hannover also takes some of the blame for all too trustingly believing the scientist's assurances that she could revolutionise the production of this globally sought-after delicacy.

The mission to save the sturgeon began in Iran in 2005. As Professor Köhler was keen to emphasise until now, that is when she had a pivotal experience of sorts. At a specialist conference she says she saw how a female sturgeon taken from the wild was slaughtered to extract caviar. But because the eggs were said to have already been too mature for processing, the entire fish carcass was discarded. She says she was appalled and dedicated herself scientifically from then on to sturgeon eggs.

The marine biologist developed a patent for hardening fish eggs - without this technology, mature sturgeon eggs would be much too soft. Five years later, she took her patent and set up Vivace GmbH to profitably market her idea. That worked with resounding success in the media: "This is what happens when luxury, animal rights and the spirit of research meet," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung raved a year and a half ago. "Caviar without the bloodshed," ARD said of the project. "NATO caviar," was the headline in Bild: "So now you can anger Moscow and Tehran just by eating caviar. And also have a clear conscience. Exquisite."

The fish farm was also joined by donors such as the Swiss investor Klaus Wecken. Even KfW Bank became a shareholder.

What the journalists didn't report: "Stripping" caviar eggs from living fish has been an established process in Russia for centuries. There are also methods for processing mature fish eggs.

As much as it makes sense to keep using sexually mature female sturgeon rather than slaughtering them, caviar from mature eggs has always remained a niche product. Real food connoisseurs find the taste too bland.

The industry reacted with the same scepticism. "Of course it is a nice idea to let the fish live," says marine biologist Willy Verdonck from the Belgian firm Royal Belgian Caviar, "but we favour slaughtering our sturgeon only after they have had a nice life with us for seven or eight years."

Caviar is expensive, and Vivace charges a princely sum for its animal-friendly image: prospective buyers must part with €119 for 50 grams of the delicacy, for example at the fish counter of the Bremen delicatessen Lestra. US customers sourcing this Vivace caviar through their American distribution partner the California Caviar Company pay some $201 including shipping for 28 grams of the apparently fairly produced caviar.

But the clear conscience bit is tricky. Because the sturgeons have to be stimulated with a hormone, otherwise the process of squeezing out the roe from the belly of the fish can end up taking hours or days, which certainly not all fish can survive.

It's embarrassing for the professor that this hormone treatment for sturgeon is not permitted in Germany, as there is no permitted preparation for it. Köhler solved this problem with academic creativity, as her company registered its planned caviar production as animal testing. The purpose of which was to determine the optimum dosage for sturgeon to induce ovulation.

This request was met with scepticism at the Lower Saxon authorities. Does the production of luxury foods count as animal testing? The leaders finally agreed upon a tricky line of reasoning: The fish should be injected with a Canadian-made synthetic counterpart of a natural hormone. Ultimately, the experiment with this preparation was said to somehow support the conservation of the sturgeon species. Because if caviar production in tanks gets up and running flawlessly, no-one would need to hunt wild, endangered sturgeon any more.

This sounds a bit like saying you want to optimise the breeding of dairy cows in order to save bison from extinction. Because the Siberian sturgeon kept by Vivace is actually classified as a straightforward farmed fish.

The animal testing approval had a good effect on Vivace. Although there are still no results available from their research, the company is allowed to market caviar extracted by hormone injections.

Although experts deem this to be harmless for consumers, it did give the company an advantage over competitors such as Dietmar Firzlaff. The owner of the company Aquafuture from Kreuztal in North Rhine-Westphalia has been in the fish farming business for decades. His company designed and built a sturgeon farming facility in Moldova which is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Here, every year the 135 employees, with a covered tank area of 50,000 square metres, produce some ten tonnes of caviar of both kinds: traditional and from mature, ovulated eggs.

Firzlaff, too, has his fish stimulated with hormones, which he admits. However, he does not distribute his ovulated caviar within the EU, but in countries that fewer problems with hormones in food production.

Hardening the egg shells after taking the roe is far less of a problem for him. He says he does not need Köhler's invention to do that: "Renowned and experienced sturgeon farmers and profitable caviar businesses have known about these or similar methods for many years." Thomas Bauer, the Managing Director of Vivace, and the fourth head of Vivace in three years, argues that the "USP" of his company is "excellent premium caviar from living fish."

The bankruptcy of Vivace could also be unwelcome news for the Lower Saxony State Agricultural Minister, Christian Meyer (Greens). Since he took office over two years ago, he has made a name for himself nationwide as a campaigner against industrial factory farming of livestock. The fact that his team could not find anything wrong with approving commercial caviar production with hormones that were not approved for that purpose does not make the minister look good. Particularly as the Cuxhaven Veterinary Inspection Office observed during an inspection that the facility was not compliant with animal rights restrictions.

The aid money also appears to have been handled recklessly. The animal testing on which the entire production is based was approved for two years. It is not known whether the preparation is subsequently going to be permitted in Germany. When the €667,000 reached Vivace, the company was already in critical financial difficulties. The accounts were looking gloomy, employees were being laid off. "Sales revenues and production costs bore no relation to one another," investor Klaus Wecken complains.

These fish eggs were obviously not to the tastes of customers, even if Managing Director Bauer raves to the SPIEGEL about a "pearly, clean product that develops an aromatic scent."

Ali Sepehr Dad, a caviar importer, sees it differently. He says Vivace sent three samples to his company in Gauting, Bavaria. He returns a devastating verdict: "Vivace caviar tastes like roe from fish that have been kept packed tightly together with poor feed and terrible water quality."

Serious farmers invest large amounts of money to wash away the luxury product's grubby image: they counter accusations of mass factory farming of livestock with spacious pond fish farms with natural flow channels, or they breed sturgeon offspring to repopulate former spawning areas.

Vivace did nothing of the kind. The liquidator is not going to make life any better for the animals - they may end up being slaughtered.

By Michael Fröhlingsdorf, Andrea Rehmsmeier
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from the original German text in the article Gemolkene Fische
about the above article - (this English translation)

The independently produced certified English translation above is offered as part of the public record of discussion about the caviar market. If you have any questions or comments you should contact the publisher of the original German article.

The above English translation was commissioned to assist readers in an English hamlet (East Chiltington) learn more about various aspects of international caviar farming and production when development plans were submitted in 2016 to construct a caviar farm in their lane. For more about that see