From Vietnam with love: Local caviar aims to make a splash

From Vietnam with love: Local caviar aims to make a splash

DALAT, Vietnam - At a sturgeon farm on a pristine lake near southern Dalat town, a worker hoists a large white fish out off the water. "It's an albino," says Vietnam's eccentric 'Caviar King' Le Anh Duc adding triumphantly, "Gold eggs!"

Not only are the eggs from the rare sturgeon - Duc has just 40 albinos out of half a million fish - an off-white 'gold' colour but they are also a money-spinner.

Albino caviar can sell for up to US$100,000 (S$131,935) per kilogramme, compared to black Beluga caviar, a snip at just US$5,000 to $10,000 a kilo according to industry figures.

Duc, a jovial Russian-educated businessman with a love of risky ventures, is a man with a mission: to get Made In Vietnam caviar onto dinner tables across the world at a reasonable price - starting with the country best known for its penchant for the salted fish-eggs.

"If we can sell our caviar to Russia - where really, they know about caviar - then people will understand this is a top quality product," said the 36-year-old entrepreneur, who already has a slew of other projects, from real estate to sea planes, under his belt.

His company, Caviar de Duc, has already signed an agreement with a Russian importer to sell between two and four tons of caviar to Russia in 2015 - although some Vietnamese seafood producers are already warning the collapse of the Russian ruble could hit exports.

Long beloved of the rich and famous, caviar is an expensive, high-end delicacy, but one now in crisis - wild caviar production has fallen from a high of some 3,000 tons per year in the 1970s to almost zero.

Rampant over-fishing and pollution in caviar's birthplace, the Caspian Sea, mean the wild beluga sturgeon is now critically endangered.

In 1998, traditional caviar production from natural fisheries was strictly limited by a system of quotas imposed by the United Nations Convention on Endangered Species (CITES), prompting greater interest and investment in sturgeon farming.

Italy, which has been farming sturgeon for decades, is now the world's top farmed caviar producer, and a new generation of newcomers like Vietnam are eyeing a slice of the market.

Duc currently has some 500,000 sturgeon spread across six farms in Vietnam, all in hydroelectric dam reservoirs leased from the communist government.

This year his fish produced some five tons of caviar. Duc wants to more than treble his output by 2017 and is ultimately dreaming of producing 100 tons of high-quality caviar a year.

"Now, caviar is like a hyper-luxury product... but it's also a healthy, delicious product. More people should eat caviar," he told AFP.

Vietnam's natural advantage

Most of the 250-400 tons of caviar on the global market each year now comes from farmed sturgeon, according to World Sturgeon Conservation Society (WSCS) estimates.

In Russia, previously one of the most biggest suppliers, "the natural population (of sturgeon) has practically disappeared," said Paolo Bronzi, vice president of the WSCS.

Despite traditional supplies drying up, demand for caviar is increasing -- spurred by the flood of newly-wealthy consumers in Asia and the Middle East - and there is growing pressure to find a new, sustainable way to feed the industry.

Sturgeon, like salmon, are relatively easy to farm - and the WSCS estimates supply could increase to 500-750 tons a year within the next few years.

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