Califonia Bountiful

A taste of plenty

January/February 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Fish farm meets demand for specialty carp

Mike Lo, manager of Asian Pearl restaurant in Sacramento, dishes up fish broth, usually served with the whole fish on the side. Carp is also often steamed or braised. Photo: © 2018 Steve German

"May you have fish year after year."

For those celebrating Chinese or Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 16 this year, the common saying has a double meaning—and is as symbolic as it is literal. That's because the Chinese word for fish, pronounced "yu," sounds just like the word for abundance. For this reason, eating fish during the New Year celebration has been a longstanding tradition in Chinese culture, as it symbolizes wealth and prosperity in the coming year.

Fish is already an important staple in Chinese cuisine and some people eat it at every meal year-round, said Mike Lo, manager of Asian Pearl restaurant in Sacramento. They may have fish porridge for breakfast and steamed fish for lunch. At dinner, they may start with some fish broth, usually served with fish and vegetables on the side, before moving to their entrée. For New Year's, fish is traditionally served whole with the head and tail attached.

"Chinese always have fish," Lo said. "Everybody likes fish."

Chinese customers also like to buy their fish live rather than already filleted and frozen—and they're willing to pay a premium, Lo added. He pointed to the wall of fish tanks lining one side of the restaurant, which featured silver carp, large-mouth bass, channel catfish and white sturgeon.

The fish come straight from The Fishery in Galt. Supplying live fish to Asian fish markets and restaurants has been at the heart of what the farm has been doing for years.

The Fishery employee Ryan O'Gorman holds a 2-year-old silver carp that's ready for market. Photo: Scott Monaco

Breeding a beauty

"That's the niche that our farm serves," owner and founder Ken Beer said. "We sell everything live."

The demands of his unique market led Beer to unusual lengths: He developed his own breed of carp to appeal to Chinese shoppers.

Although certain species of carp are considered invasive in some U.S. lakes and rivers, the freshwater fish is legendary in Chinese mythology. Depictions of koi and goldfish—both members of the carp family—are common in Chinese art. The fish is a popular design motif on Chinese porcelain. During Chinese New Year, "lucky money" is given in red envelopes often decorated with a carp.

"There's more carp grown in the world than any other species," Beer said. "But here in this country, we don't eat them. In Asia, they're eating them like crazy and there's a lot of different species of them."

Unlike the catfish, bass and sturgeon the farm was already raising, carp was the one species Beer set out to grow based on what he saw in demand in Asian fish markets.

He frequented numerous markets in California and they often featured a hodgepodge of wild carp species caught commercially in local lakes. He noticed that wild goldfish always fetched a higher price than the common carp, so he wanted to try growing it.

But goldfish are difficult to raise, he said, mainly because they grow so slowly, taking five to seven years just to reach 1 pound. Also, what the market prefers, he noted, is not the ornamental type of goldfish but a larger, deeper-bodied, silvery fish. He decided to try crossing different carp species to develop a fish that grows faster but still looks like what was being sold in the markets.

"We knew hybrids were showing up in the marketplace and were selling at the same price as the pure goldfish," Beer said. "The trick was to farm the right species and develop the right techniques."

Though there are many different carp species around the world, by state law he could breed only what was already established in California. His effort started in the early '90s and it took nearly a decade of trial and error to develop the strain of carp he currently raises. Today, the farm sells about 5,000 pounds of carp a week.

Ken Beer and his son Zack Beer stand next to outdoor tanks that hold sturgeon on one end and carp downstream from it. That allows the carp to eat food left behind by the sturgeon, leaving the water cleaner. Photo: Ching Lee

Fertile waters

The Fishery consists of four different ranches in Sacramento County that grow white sturgeon, channel catfish, silver carp and large-mouth bass. A fifth ranch in the mountains of Modoc County is used to raise only female sturgeon, after their gender has been determined, usually by the age of 3 or 4. All the fish live outdoors—in tanks when they're young and in ponds when they're older. One ranch is devoted to housing the brood stock, used to spawn more fish each spring.

Carp fits well with the farm's production style, said Zack Beer, the oldest of Ken's four sons—all of whom are in the business. Because carp will eat both fish and plant materials, they help to clean the farm's water, which is recirculated and reused, he explained. For example, tanks holding carp are situated downstream from the sturgeon, which is raised for its caviar and meat. This is so the carp will clean what was left behind in the water by the sturgeon.

"Instead of getting a buildup of organic matter, the carp will feed on that," Ken Beer said. "Not only are they eating the food that we typically feed them, they're eating the food that the sturgeon didn't eat."

Ken Beer's introduction to fish farming began in 1975, right after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in biology. He got into the business through a cousin, who knew a group of entrepreneurs interested in raising catfish in the Sacramento area. Back in those days, aquaculture was still a new frontier in animal agriculture. "

Fish farming—people didn't even know the term aquaculture when I started," he said.

A research program in the late 1970s to develop hatchery technology for sturgeon at the University of California, Davis, where Beer earned his master's degree, provided the formal training he needed to launch his own commercial aquaculture business. With more than 40 years of experience raising fish, Beer is considered an authority and a mentor in aquaculture circles.

"I was talking to my buddy about aquaculture going forward, and he said my dad has been the guru that's kept everybody together," Zack Beer said.

Pedro Espinoza, left, checks on large-mouth bass before departing for his deliveries. At right, Jesus and Vicente Anguiano grade carp to get the ideal size for market. Photos: Scott Monaco

Clamoring for carp

Meanwhile, their business is booming. The Fishery supplies live fish to some 100 fish markets and Asian supermarket chains throughout Northern California, many of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. The farm's longtime ranch manager, Juan Anguiano, takes care of Sacramento-area restaurants such as Asian Pearl.

With demand far outpacing what The Fishery can produce, Zack Beer said the farm must be strategic about how much fish it allocates to each market, to ensure an adequate supply year-round—and for Chinese New Year, when each market wants more than double its usual order.

"We've got to plan around Chinese New Year because there's so much demand," he said. "We have entire trucks that go out that will have just carp, because every family that's going through Oakland's Chinatown, San Francisco's Chinatown—they're grabbing that nice carp for their family dinner."

Of the restaurants he serves, Anguiano said he has earned a loyal following and his customers won't buy fish from anyone else. He usually delivers twice a week, and on those days he's often swarmed by restaurant patrons elbowing to see what he's brought, shouting and pointing to stake their claim. The restaurants always want more than what he can provide, he said, and as with the fish markets, he has to limit what he can sell to each one to ensure all his customers get some of the carp they crave.

"We never leave them without fish," he said. "That's an important thing for them."

Ching Lee 

Aquaculture: What it's all about

California aquaculture producers grow a variety of fish species and aquatic plants.

In terms of commercial food production, aquaculture—or fish farming—is considered a relatively new segment of California agriculture, but the practice of raising aquatic species has been around for millennia. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the first record of aquaculture dates back to 475 B.C. in China, although some historians trace the beginnings of fish farming to as far back as 4,000 years ago, when the Chinese first tried to grow the common carp.

It was not until the 1700s that aquaculture began to expand worldwide, with people in North America getting into the game in the 1800s. Those early efforts were mostly to stock waters for sport fishing, although some finfish, oysters and clams were grown for food. In the U.S., concerns about declining fish populations led Congress to establish the National Fish Hatchery System in 1871. The nation's first hatchery was in California.

Today, California aquaculture encompasses much more than hatchery programs that raise fish to stock lakes and rivers for recreational fishing. The state's aquaculture producers grow a variety of fish species and aquatic plants—both for human consumption and for use as feed, mostly for other farmed fish. They include abalone, algae, bass, bluegill, carp, catfish, caviar, mussels, oysters, perch, seaweed, sturgeon, tilapia and trout.

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest