Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

An Island Roemance

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Andrew Richard Hara.

“Sturgeon are absolutely beautiful in their own way,” says Kevin Hopkins. “Some people consider them ugly as can be. But they just cruise like dinosaurs.” They look prehistoric, with their snub noses, bony armor and ridges running along their length, because they are prehistoric, dating from the time of the dinosaurs and remaining relatively unchanged in the 150 million years since. But there’s another reason Hopkins loves sturgeon: their eggs. Hopkins, an aquaculture professor at the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo, and Howard Takata, a retired UH extension agent, raise Russian osetra sturgeon in spring-fed ponds in Hilo. Four times a year they harvest roe—the only caviar produced in Hawai‘i.

The tiny black orbs, glistening with a soft gray sheen, pop lightly on the tongue, tasting clearly of the ocean and leaving a delicate, buttery finish. Hopkins and Takata cure the roe with less salt than a lot of caviar, making what is considered a fresh caviar that must be consumed within a few weeks. It rarely lasts that long: A handful of chefs and restaurants, including Hubert Des Marais, executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid, and Hy’s Steak House lay claim to each harvest, a mere ten pounds or so, sold at about $450 a pound.

Hopkins wants to raise more fish, but a caviar venture has a hard time attracting investors. It takes about five years before osetra sturgeon can produce eggs. That’s one of the longest maturation periods in aquaculture, which means five years of feeding fish that bring no income. It’s part of the reason Hopkins and Takata have been consistently making caviar only for the past few years, though they imported their first eggs to hatch more than two decades ago. In the beginning they also struggled against predators like invasive mongoose and ‘auku‘u (black-crowned night heron), which would “sit on the side of the tank. The sturgeon would stick their heads out, like they’re being curious, and they were the ‘auku‘u’s pūpū right there,” Hopkins says.

Though Hopkins and Takata lose few fish these days and they’re finally selling the caviar, Hopkins admits that financially, “using logic and common sense, it makes no sense to do it.” So why do they? “Some people love to garden,” he says. “Well, Howard and I like to grow sturgeon.”