CHEONGJU (Yonhap News) ― The banks of the Namhan River bend throughout this region of the Korean countryside, said to be the geographical center of the nation. It’s an area dotted with apple orchards and surrounded by green hills, where on a quiet afternoon the sound of chanting can be heard, echoing from a Buddhist temple.
At one spot along the shoreline stand what appear to be above ground, Olympic-sized swimming pools. But you won’t find any athletes doing laps in their lanes. The river water-filled tanks are home to 50,000 Caspian Sea sturgeon.
The fish belong to economist-turned-aquaculturist Han Sang-hun, the owner of Almas Caviar, South Korea’s first and only caviar farm. Seventeen years ago, Han brought a couple hundred sturgeon back home with him from a business trip to Russia. He says finding a place to raise them was a no-brainer. Just like what any entrepreneur might say, the secret of creating a successful business is location, location, location.
“The waters here are the ideal environment to raise sturgeon,” Han says. “The quality of the water is the most important thing in this business.”
Han says Namhan’s alkaline balance and temperature stay at steady levels thanks to the absence of factories along the river as well as a nearby dam that calms the water’s flow. Han credits the water with enabling his farm to produce between 3 and 12 tons of roe a year.
Most challenging for Han was trying to convince customers that aside from traditional caviar producing countries, like Iran and Russia, South Korea can export a high quality product, too.
“We had all this caviar, but it wasn’t easy at first to sell it,” he says. “It took two years to build our reputation.” Today, Almas is a top supplier not only in Korea, but also to Japan and the western United States.
It’s not surprising to find caviar aqua-farms in unlikely places, says David Morgan of CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). He says this is in part due to the overharvesting and killing of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea.
“Stocks in the wild have declined very considerably and now a substantial part of international caviar trade are products that have been produced in aquaculture,” Morgan said from his office in Geneva. He points out that in addition to South Korea, caviar exporters have also set up in Argentina and Saudi Arabia.
International import bans on Caspian Sea Beluga and other sturgeon species also make private fisheries profitable.
“The rewards are great, if you can handle the investment,” Morgan adds.
The time and money required to run a successful sturgeon farm is one reason why Han is currently Korea’s only name in the game.
By his count, 72 other would-be aqua-farmers have come and gone, not prepared for the commitment and slow profit yield that raising caviar demands. Han says it took 12 years for his sturgeon to become mature enough to lay eggs and it costs between US$60,000 and $100,000 a month just to feed them. He ended up buying sturgeon from his broke competitors, which have led to allegations that Han is running a caviar monopoly. He disagrees.
“I was just trying to save the fish,” says Han.
But while Han has praised the Namhan River for what it has given, the Namhan has also taken away, during a summer storm in 2007.
“It poured rain and the river flooded over and the sturgeons got away, but I’m not really sure how many,” recalls Han Jehee, 33, who assists her father with his business. That incident prompted the Hans to move their fish to tanks further away from the riverbank.
Catching a sturgeon is one thing, producing caviar is another.
Fishermen around the Caspian Sea often stun or kill the fish in order to harvest its roe. Han, while thrusting a spoon into the air, demonstrates how some fishermen stab the sturgeon with a screwdriver to check if any eggs are inside. But at Almas, the tricks of the trade are a mixture of old and new ingenuity.
“I can tell when the fish is ready to lay eggs just by feeling its belly or just looking at it,” he says. “I know whether the eggs are ready to be harvested now, or whether we should leave the fish in the water for another two hours.”
In the wild, Han says, sturgeon only produce eggs between May 3 and 18. That’s when the underground water, the seawater and ground temperature are all the same. Given such a small window of time, Han says he’s had to rely on modern technology to help out with the harvest.
“We are cheating nature. By regulating the temperature of the water in the tank, it puts the fish into a spring-like environment, like they just came out of hibernation. Now we can actually harvest eggs from January to July.”
Only a few hundred sturgeon are selected for harvest each year.
It takes two men to lift the fish, which in Han’s farm can grow up to 2 meters and weigh 70 kilograms. A slit in the fish’s abdomen is cut with a small knife and the roe is massaged out. These sturgeon are separated from the others for two years, so they can recuperate.
Han’s daughter, Jehee, says she’s grown accustomed to her father’s unavailability during the harvest season. Her phone calls go unanswered, her texts not replied to for hours. But she doesn’t feel neglected in favor of the sturgeon. “I am just glad he has something he can work on passionately. My dad really loves what he does, it makes him happy,” she says. “I don’t envy the fish.”
For Han Sang-hun, the caviar farm is a labor of love and one that neither he nor many others alive today will see completely through. Sturgeon can live for more than a century. But this disparity of longevity doesn’t get Han down. He’s learned some of life’s secrets from his fish.
“I think about every generation, history as well as the future,” he says. “Because sturgeon grow slowly and over such a long time, I can plan more precisely for the future, even the next 100 years.”