White sturgeon are disappearing at alarming rates in the wild, and there is increased interest in conservation and efforts to develop a closed containment aquaculture industry. 

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Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo is leading the charge. They’ve been working with white sturgeon since 1984 and more recently created the International Centre for Sturgeon Studies.

Although the fish can reach market size in 12 to 18 months, producers may have to wait eight years or more before they can expect more lucrative returns from caviar production. 

That’s a long lead time for investors, but Dr. Dan Baker, the centre’s sturgeon specialist, is convinced that sturgeon aquaculture has enormous potential.

With funding from the Government of British Columbia, the centre recently undertook a two-year project to investigate the feasibility of white sturgeon aquaponics, the process of combining hydroponics and aquaculture, to help producers earn revenue even during the start-up phase.

Existing aquaponics systems typically involve warm-water species like tilapia. No one had tried cold-water aquaponics before, so there were a lot of questions about whether or not it would work.

The fish used in the project were raised at the university from brood stock rescued from poachers and collectors more than 25 years ago. They added a greenhouse to their existing operation and investigated four different aquaponics methods: deep water culture, vertical growing, media beds and nutrient film technique.

More than 20 different plants, from lettuce and herbs to cucumbers and strawberries, were grown successfully, and the fish did just fine too.

“White sturgeon are well suited to aquaculture and grow better when fed in tanks than in the wild,” Dan says.

The key is balancing the nutrients to improve fish growth and maximize plant growth. As water is recirculated within the system, the plants filter it, and this, in turn, keeps the fish healthy and helps them grow quickly.

Although the industry is yet small, interest in this project has been strong and Dan regularly fields technical questions from several companies considering their options.

Funding: Up to $70,000 provided by the Government of British Columbia through the Aquaculture Innovation Program. (SI005)