KUALA LUMPUR: The sturgeon is a fish that is probably lesser known than its roe (eggs), which when salt-cured becomes the luxury food that is caviar.
Countries near subtropical and subarctic waters normally produce this expensive and rare delicacy but now Malaysia is planning to become the world's second largest producer of caviar through an aquaculture venture by Felda.
The project will be a sturgeon farming complex known as the Felda Caviartive Blue Dream Park in Kuala Tahan, Pahang.
Sturgeons have been constantly hunted for their precious roe, where its market price is between RM9,000 and RM16,000 a kilogramme. There are only 28 species of sturgeons left in the world today, four of them possibly extinct due to extensive illegal fishing.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature over 85 per cent of the fish are at risk of extinction making them the most critically endangered of all species.
The sturgeons found in the Caspian Sea are among those nearing extinction. The sea bordering along Iran is the producer of the world's best caviar.
Today, the international trade and harvesting of all species of sturgeons are regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
The sturgeon is not a fish native to Malaysian waters. In fact, it is one of the fish species banned under the Fisheries Act 1985. The regulation is to prevent the introduction and spread of new diseases to Malaysian waters, which could threaten the biodiversity balance, habitat and the native fish species to the country.
Cognisant of such issues, the people of Kuala Tahan noted with apprehension the news of the construction of a 20-hectare sturgeon farming complex in the region.
They are worried of the destruction on nature as they have heard that the project would take up part of the Taman Negara Forest Reserve, where many of the locals depended on ecotourism activities for a living.
Felda's Strategic Resources Deputy General Manager Muhammad Sufi Mahbub addressed the concern by saying that the land awarded by the state government for the project was not inside the forest reserve, but next to it.
"The area was selected by the State government itself. Felda will ensure its environmental conservation by only cutting down 60 per cent of the trees in the area.
"For every tree felled, Felda will pay a compensation to the state government that will itself open the tender for the felling of the trees," he said.
The Director General of Fisheries had given a written permission to import four species of sturgeon, namely the Siberian, Amur, Sterlet and Bester into Malaysia last June.
Its Impact Risk Assessment stated that the species brought in were only those that fed on pellets and spirulina, thus quashing claims that the fish is a predator that would destroy the natural habitat of fish native to the Kuala Tahan River.
"Indeed there are sturgeons that feed on fries, but these four species are not those types. They also spawn earlier than those in the Caspian Sea, producing roe within three to four years," Muhammad Sufi explained.
The ponds to be built would be 27 metres above sea level and fenced.
Research conducted in the past 30 years showed that the biggest flood to strike Kuala Tahan was 23 metres deep. The possibility of future floods reaching 25 to 27 metres in depth was probably nil, he said.
"Even if it did happen, the fencing around the pond would prevent the fish from swimming out.
"In the event the fishes are accidentally released into the river, it will not be a grave concern. The species requires a temperature of 16 degrees Celsius to spawn, while the minimum temperature at our rivers is 22 degrees Celsius," he said.
The FC Blue Dream Park project in Kuala Tahan is now in its final stages and awaiting the results of the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment report before it can be launched next year.
Felda would explain the report to the people of Kuala Tahan once it is out, he said. The RM150 million project will be in collaboration with South Korean company FI2C Hassed (M) Sdn Bhd.
The farming complex among others will house breeding ponds, an exhibition area, aquariums, a research and development centre and a resort.