On the shores of the Caspian Sea, an ambitious project hopes to produce a delicacy that could boost Iran’s economy as sanctions ease: caviar.
Once the world’s biggest exporter of the luxury food, Iran sold more than 40 tons of sturgeon eggs in 2000. Exports plunged to just 1 ton last year due to dwindling fish stocks and trade sanctions which were imposed in response to Tehran’s nuclear programme.
But this summer’s landmark deal under which the country agreed to curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for the removal of sanctions imposed in 2010, has sparked hope of a revival in the exclusive egg trade.
“We hope that as a result of the government’s interaction with the world, the path will be opened for us to export our products abroad,” said Ishaq Islami, the manager of the private Ghareh Boron Caviar Fish Farm in the coastal village of Goldasht, 190 miles north of Tehran. The farm and two nearby facilities are breeding half a million sturgeon fingerlings a year, filling its pools with water pumped in from the Caspian.
Mr Islami began the $100m (£65.5m) project in 2005, but it takes at least 12 years for sturgeon to mature and produce caviar. About 110,000 of the fish are beluga, the species that produce prized, silver-grey eggs, the world’s most-expensive caviar.
The farm aims to export 30 tons of salt-cured caviar and 2,000 tons of sturgeon meat in three years. Mr Islami expects to earn $90m a year based on an average price of $3,000 a kilogram (about $1,360 a pound) for caviar. The US, Europe and Japan have traditionally been the biggest markets.
“Our annual, projected hard-currency earnings in 2018 will be equal to the value of two days of Iran’s crude-oil exports,” he said.
Caviar production fits with the Iranian government’s plan to reduce reliance on crude-oil revenues and build up a broader range of exports.
“Lifting sanctions, specifically banking restrictions, will facilitate caviar exports and help the industry flourish in Iran,” industry analyst Nasser Oktaei said. “Caviar exports to the US, if they materialise, will inject a new blood into the industry and bring in the much-needed hard currency.”
The 860,000 sq ft Ghareh Boron farm is one of three facilities run by Mr Islami to raise sturgeon, which are threatened by overfishing, pollution and destruction of spawning sites. A temporary global ban on catching wild sturgeon was imposed in 2001 amid fears that the beluga species was facing extinction. Caviar exports are now subject to quotas while the five countries on the Caspian have agreed to extend the ban on commercial fishing to allow wild stocks to replenish.
According to Hasan Habibnejad, the provincial fisheries chief, the Goldasht facility has created some 200 jobs.
“We hope this facility will turn into the capital of the world’s caviar,” he said.
Mr Islami has bigger plans for his fish farm.
“In addition to exporting eggs and meat, we will also produce oil and cosmetics. Sturgeon skin can also make good leather. Its intestine can be turned into sutures. Nothing is wasted. We also plan to turn our facility into a tourism attraction where customers will be able to buy the prized caviar and other products,” he said.
Several small-scale sturgeon farms have popped up across Iran in recent years, including one in a desert town in central Iran and another in Qom, Iran’s religious capital.
“Banks didn’t give me loans and even the authorities were opposed to breeding sturgeon in the desert,” said Qom farmer Mohammad Taqi Barkhordari, who filled his pools with salt water pumped from wells.
“It worked. Nothing is impossible if you have will and determination.”