Posted by: Hendra Siry | 29 October, 2008

Land of milk and caviar: Israeli fish farm nets millions

THOUSANDS of kilometres from the Caspian Sea, Israel is cashing in on a global caviar crisis, gearing up to export tonnes of the costly roe from farm-raised sturgeon.

It may not be quite kosher – depending on who you ask – but there is a huge international demand for the gourmet treat.

“This is top quality,” says Yigal Ben Tzvi, managing director of Caviar Galilee, holding up a blue tin of “Made in Israel” sturgeon eggs, which he says caviar giant Petrossian buys wholesale at $US2800 ($A3370) a kilogram.

In the past, the Caspian Sea was the world’s main source of the coveted delicacy, but overfishing and pollution have led to dwindling yields in the region, triggering a grave caviar crisis.

Israel is making a name for itself in the lucrative market by farming Osetra sturgeon at Kibbutz Dan in the north of the country, just a stone’s throw from positions of the Hezbollah Shiite militia in southern Lebanon.

To date, Caviar Galilee’s limited production has earned praise from connoisseurs and orders from top retailers.

Pay-off time is just weeks away, says Mr Ben Tzvi, when he expects to harvest three tonnes of caviar from 7000 females born in Israel of eggs imported from the Caspian Sea.

Staff at Kibbutz Dan are already checking on the money-makers, inserting a special instrument to extract a few eggs from the fish in order to determine their size and quality.

Each of the females carries an average of two kilograms, which could bring in as much as $US7.7 million ($9.3 million).

The business began with the idea of raising a fish destined specifically for the sizeable Russian-Israeli population.

“Then in 2003, caviar prices skyrocketed so we decided to get into this business,” Mr Ben Tzvi said.

But is it kosher? Most rabbis say sturgeon are not because the fish has no scales, which makes it forbidden under Jewish dietary laws.

Hebrew University scientist Berta Levavi-Sivan, who has participated in the sturgeon-rearing project, begs to differ, insisting that magnification will reveal that the fish do indeed have tiny scales.

“If you ask me, it’s kosher,” he said.



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