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Fish Stories

Galilee Diary #454, August 26, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water,, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales - these you may eat.

-Leviticus 11:9

Last week I hosted a couple of guests from the US who happen to be in the gourmet food business. In planning an itinerary in the Galilee, they told me they had heard there is a caviar farm in the region, and that they'd be interested in seeing it. I had no idea what they were talking about, but did a little research and discovered that sure enough, Kibbutz Dan, at the very northern tip of the country, in the shadow of Mt. Hermon, does indeed produce caviar. We made an appointment, and spent a fascinating hour being shown around by the manager. Here is some of what I learned:

What is traditionally considered the finest caviar consists of the eggs of the Osetra sturgeon, which lives in the Caspian Sea. The Soviet government strictly regulated fishing, but since the collapse of that control, overfishing rapidly brought the variety nearly to extinction. With the wholesale price of caviar around $800 a pound, there is good motivation to find an alternative source. This is complicated by the demands of the sturgeon - which won't breed in captivity - and the sensitivity of the eggs to water quality: raising them in recirculated water gives the caviar a bad taste. The advantage of the kibbutz is that the waters of the Dan spring flow through it - the Dan is one of the three large springs feeding the Jordan River; all three are themselves fed by snowmelt on Mt. Hermon. For years Kibbutz Dan has operated large fish farms based on this water, providing delicious trout for the Israeli market. Biologists working with the kibbutz developed a method of in vitro fertilization of sturgeon, enabling them to produce fry in large numbers. Raised in tanks of fresh Dan water (which then flows on to the ponds where less sensitive fish live), the sturgeon are carefully tended for the nine (!) years it takes them to reach maturity. Along the way, each is anesthetized and examined endoscopically to determine its sex, and the males are sold for meat. When the females are mature, weighing nearly 80 pounds, they are "harvested," each yielding about 5 pounds of eggs. The kibbutz sells four tons a year in a good year, and is busy building new ponds for expansion. The operation is really a very impressive example of knowledge-intensive agriculture, using sophisticated science, and a modest natural resource, to produce a valuable commodity. It is interesting to think about what the socialist pioneers of a century ago, founders of the kibbutzim, would make of these high tech pioneers - producing, by the sweat of their brow, not bread for the masses, but the one foodstuff that symbolizes, probably more than any other, the extravagant, conspicuous consumption of the wealthy.

But wait, there's more: sturgeon is a primitive species (they look sort of like sharks), whose scales are really bony plates embedded in the skin - they can't be scraped off like "normal" fish scales. Hence, there has been an ongoing controversy over whether they (and their eggs) are kosher. Various Orthodox rabbis have, in the past two centuries, considered them kosher, but by the end of the 20th century the consensus was that they do not have real scales and hence are not kosher. The law committee of the Conservative movement, meanwhile, permits them. The chief rabbinate of Israel has now threatened to remove its certification of Kibbutz Dan's trout in Israel if the kibbutz continues to market sturgeon here - they will have to export it all so as not to endanger their valuable domestic trout business.

A Jewish state - sometimes I wonder what Herzl would say about what we've done here.

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