Sturgeons at New Orchard Fisheries
You’re unlikely to know a great deal about the sturgeon. They occasionally crop up as a suspect when Jeremy Wade investigates a series of mysterious fisherman fatalities in TV’s River Monsters.
If you regularly attend parties on luxury yachts owned by oil barons or James Bond villains, you may enjoy a little caviar, made from the salt-cured fish eggs of certain species of sturgeon.
Other than that, sturgeons enjoy a low key existence in this country. Occasionally they make headlines, like in 2004 when a Welsh fisherman caught a ten foot sturgeon and sold it for £650 at auction. As a Royal fish, all sturgeon caught in the UK need to be offered to the Monarch first, and it is illegal to sell them.
So few sturgeon are caught here (on average just six a year are recorded) that it is not an issue that causes The Queen too many sleepless nights. But you may be surprised to know that there are several thousand of the fish at a farm close to Squires Garden Centre in Washington.
New Orchard Fisheries is one of very few CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) approved wholesale sturgeon farms in the country. The farm stocks eight different varieties of sturgeon, including some rare species such as the Acipenser Transmontanus, the largest freshwater fish in North America.
They also have the Beluga sturgeon, which is one of the sturgeon species that is heavily fished for the female's roe, which is used in caviar, prompting many governments to enact restrictions on its trade. Perhaps the most immediately attractive is the Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), also known as the diamond sturgeon. Found mainly in the Caspian Sea and rivers and lakes of Eurasia, the diamond can grow up to ten foot, but is vulnerable to over fishing.
Others include the sterlet (Acipenser ruthenusis) a relatively small species that has also suffered in its native habitat because of the caviar trade.
The fisheries is run by Eric Tate, with the help of his wife Jacki, son James and daughter-in-law Cheryl. As well as the sturgeon they also have an array of animals on the site including alpacas, barn owls and parrots.
Eric was once a customer of the fisheries. When he lived in Hampshire, he would fill his garden pond with koi carp and goldfish, but started buying sturgeon after stumbling across New Orchard Fisheries on the internet. He started selling the fish on eBay for a while, before he took over the farm when the previous owner left.
Eric said: “We bring the fish here when they are only three or four inches long, feed them until they are a little bigger, and sell them on from anywhere between six inches to six foot long. In garden ponds, nobody has had them in this country for long enough to see how big they can grow.
“They grow very quickly for the first couple of years, and tend to keep growing. We’ve had them here at six foot, but they grow twice that size in the wild as they live for so long. There are pictures online of six or seven men holding a single fish.”
The sturgeon are imported when they are new born from breeding farms in France and Belgium, using special adaptive tanks that supply the necessary amount of oxygen during transportation. The Sturgeon are primarily a bottom-feeder so they are fed pellets, specially produced by a sturgeon farm on the continent, to grow big fish for the purpose of producing large amounts of caviar.
But at the Washington farm, where there is no caviar production, the fish are simply sold wholesale. The fish are placed into ten large tanks depending on size, whilst a huge 5,000 gallon tank is being built to home the larger specimens. A lot of the smaller fish sadly die, as it is difficult to ensure that all the fish are fed. Whilst plenty of food is put into the tanks, some fish are not as alert as others and miss out.
Cheryl Jackson, Eric’s daughter-in-law, said: “A sturgeon has no teeth, so our fish won’t eat other fish in your pond. The only one that may eat other fish is the Huso (Beluga) which will eat anything it can in the wild. It is one of the largest predatory fish in the world. But because ours are brought up on sinking pellets, it’s unlikely they will eat other fish, and they are easier to keep than koi. Anyone can look after a sturgeon as long as they have the space, and can supply plenty of pellets and oxygen.
“They have bad eyesight as they live in rivers and forage for food. You hear stories that they clean ponds as they hoover the bottom, but they don’t! We sell mainly to aquatic centres, but some buy them and do not know what species they have! We’ve heard stories where garden centres have advertised the fish as slow growing and then after six months there’s a three foot fish in someone’s pond!
“They grow approximately one foot per year on average, except for a couple of the smaller species. A big fish, maybe three or four feet long, will cost a few hundred pounds wholesale, but if you went to a garden centre they would cost an awful lot more. We have sold to private customers though, and there are a good number around the country in garden ponds!”
The caviar market is huge, selling for $2,500 per pound or $3,000 to $5,500 per kilo last year. But it is not an area that New Orchard Fisheries is looking to venture into.
Cheryl said: “We still get people coming here saying that they have never seen a sturgeon. They say ‘well, what is it?’ They know about its link to caviar but that’s about it. We have looked into caviar, but there’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done in order to be a bona fide caviar producer. Firstly, you need to make sure of course that you only have females and that in itself is difficult. It is a very intense marketplace as well.
“We want to produce fish for ponds. We have had the odd one or two sold for meat, as restaurants serve sturgeon steaks and you can buy the steaks at one of the posh London supermarkets. But Eric and Jacki love animals, so to see them being killed for food doesn’t fit with their own beliefs. They love animals, and treat the fish as pets.”
For more details on the farm visit www.neworchardfisheries.co.uk