By Jenn McGarrigle
Something deliciously fishy is happening at Vancouver Island University’s International Centre for Sturgeon Studies these days – and it’s catching on at local restaurants and retail outlets.
The centre recently started selling cans of smoked sturgeon and fresh fillets to restaurants and retail shops – both as a revenue generator to help with the education and research that goes on at the facility, and as a way of building awareness about what the centre does.
So far three restaurants – the Westwood Bistro in Nanaimo, Pacific Prime Restaurant and Lounge in Parksville and Edible Canada in Vancouver – are serving up VIU sturgeon products to customers, and cans of smoked sturgeon – processed and smoked locally at St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse – are available at several local retail shops.
“Our sturgeon are grown in a land-based, closed-containment, re-circulating system which is used for training our fisheries and aquaculture students, so there’s a local, environmentally friendly, educational aspect to it,” says Jenny Dawson-Coates, a VIU fish health biologist. “It’s also a really nice fish for eating. In other places in the world, it’s a delicacy.”
The centre raises thousands of white sturgeon to age two, at which time fish densities need to be reduced due to space constraints. Because of federal and provincial laws, releasing the fish into the wild is not an option. Selling sturgeon products is an innovative way for the self-funded facility to supplement grant funding.
VIU sturgeon is available at McLean’s Specialty Foods, Nesvog Meats and Sausage and VIU’s campus store.
At Westwood Bistro, guests can sample the smoked product in a risotto-filled crepe with yam cream, and the fresh fillets make an appearance on special menus from time to time. Head Chef Kellie Callender says the major appeal of VIU sturgeon is that it is a unique, interesting, local product, and all the money goes back into research and education. He’s also heard many positive things about the taste of the product.
“Whenever I talk to guests after they’ve had it, they’re usually really excited to hear where it’s from,” says Callender. “We try to support local farmers and producers as much as possible and that whole message really changes how people feel about coming out to eat.”
Debbie Shore, chairwoman of VIU’s culinary programs, who has cooked with it a number of times, also enjoys the taste.
“It’s juicy and has a good texture and a really nice flavour,” she says. “Anytime I’ve cooked with it, comments have been positive and people have really liked it.”
White sturgeon – the largest sturgeon species in North America – can grow up to six metres long and can live up to 100-150 years old. Sturgeon have been swimming the waters of the world for more than 200 million years.
Since 1984, VIU has been researching white sturgeon and teaching students and the general public about the species. In 2012, to fill the need for a dedicated sturgeon research centre in North America and continue developing its sturgeon research program, VIU constructed the centre on the Nanaimo campus. It brings together research activities at the regional, national and international levels involving conservation, enhancement and commercial interests. It is also a place where people can go to learn more about these unique ‘living fossils’ – the centre sees more than 1,000 visitors annually.
Jenn McGarrigle is with VIU’s communications department.