By Jack Laurenson and Antonina Tsymbaliuk
Odesa – Andre Pigulevsky wants to have his company exporting a billion Black Sea oysters – over 100,000 tons of the salt-water mollusc – annually, within the next 7-10 years.
It's an ambitious objective for his small business. But considering he has single-handedly resurrected Ukrainian oyster farming in recent years, his supporters are confident in the mission.
Until recently, Black Sea oysters were practically extinct and aquaculture farms trying to reintroduce and cultivate them were largely failing.
The broader picture for Ukrainian aquaculture and seafood now, is one of gradual recovery. The Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 contributed to the near collapse of Ukraine's coastal seafood production.
Twenty years ago, Ukraine was a major player in Black Sea fishing and aquaculture, with annual yields exceeding 400,000 tons. Now, that has dropped to a mere 90,000 tons in 2017.
But small-scale farms – like Pigulevsky's company, Skifian Oysters – are starting to turn that around. They currently ship 4 million oysters per year, and the company's revenues have grown by 35% annually every year for the past five.
An oyster rennaisance
Pigulevsky's Black Sea farm, in a secret bay near the southern city of Kherson – 100km from Russian-occupied Crimea – is producing a delicate and sweet-tasting oyster that has become the darling of restaurants in Kyiv, Karkhiv, Lviv and Odesa.
Foreign exports are currently modest, but they're expected to increase significantly in the next few years. Meanwhile, Skifian dominates a domestic market that has acquired a real taste for sweet oyster meat.
"The popularity of oysters has really exploded here in recent years," says one up-scale restaurant owner from Kharkiv, visiting her seafood wholesaler in Kyiv.
"And they have also become more affordable too," she says, inspecting shellfish and molluscs from France, Japan and the Netherlands, alongside oysters from Skifian's Black Sea farm.
She opts for a large batch of the Ukrainian oysters, to be prepared, chilled and delivered to her restaurant.
"They're small, delicate and have a lovely taste – they're very popular with our customers."
The Black Sea oyster – called mushlya fina, or "fine seashell" by Skifian – also doesn't break the bank. Historically seen as a food for the wealthy, Pigulevsky remembers that only a few years ago in Kyiv imported oysters could only be found in the poshest eateries and would often cost upwards of $5 each.
Now, they can be easily ordered on ice with lemon juice and worcestershire sauce for as little as $2 each. In supermarkets like Le Silpo and Novus, they can often be found for as little as $1,50.
"It's taken a long time to get where we are now," says Pigulevsky, who has been developing small-scale oyster farming and wholesale since discovering he had a passion for the nutritious mollusc when traveling through France.
"Now, we are starting to see the real untapped potential of Ukraine's Black Sea coast, and we seriously believe the region has the capacity to export a billion oysters per year."
A taste for seafood
Consumption of seafood in Ukraine has sky-rocketed in recent years. To make up for losses in domestic production, companies here are importing over 320,000 tons of seafood a year, according to official statistics.
Norway leads the pack, but Ukraine also imports tons of seafood from 60 other countries.
Odesa's beaches during the summer are rammed with vendors selling local fish and mussels, usually pickled in vinegar and spices. Restaurants in all Ukrainian cities now often feature oysters on the menu. But only a handful of aquaculture farms operate on the Black Sea coast.
Experts say this untapped resource will be a significant area of growth in the very near future. They predict a Black Sea gold rush.
"Ukraine's coast presents a lot of unused potential," says Andriy Yarmak, an economist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO.
"Lots of people are looking into this right now," says Yarmak, noting that Ukraine's coast also presents interesting opportunities for foreign investors who are savvy, patient and aware of the risks.
Identifying the unused potential of the Ukrainian coast, and with his sights now set firmly on China as a valuable and hungry market, Pigulevsky has begun to rapidly increase production of his oysters.
Ukrainian aquaculture: Death and rebirth
Up until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Ukraine's Black Sea coast was the biggest exporter of wild oysters in the world. Most European countries imported them, where they became famous for their delicate and not too salty taste.
But political upheavals here would result in shifts in culinary trends and changes to industrial and agricultural output priorities that caused the near collapse of aquaculture.
In 1947, a final nail was hammered into the coffin of the country's Black Sea seafood industry.
Ships returning from Asian waters after the Second World War brought with them a voracious, predatory species of mollusc that decimated populations of wild mussels and clams.
"Our indigenous oysters were practically pushed to extinction," says Pigulevsky. "This predator absolutely ate everything along the Black Sea coast."
Decades of Soviet neglect did little to help Black Sea farmers and fishermen, either. The industry and the way of life entered into a chronic decline.
According to Pavel Kutischev, a professor specializing in marine resources at Kherson State University, the time is now right for a comeback for coastal aquaculture here.
"The Black Sea, due to its unique physical and geographical characteristics, is very promising region for the development of aquaculture, especially the farming of mussels, oysters and other molluscs."
"In fact, our marine areas – especially the protected gulfs and coastal bays of the sea – offer one of the best locations available in the world right now for the cultivation of different molluscs, in particular oysters," says Kutischev.
Highly nutritious black mud and clean, food-filled water results in a highly accelerated growth rate for seafood here. The sea's many secluded bays and tranquil water inlets with perfect levels of salinity are gradually becoming a haven for farmers.
Producing oysters is a long-term commitment; the mollusc takes years to grow to an edible size. But the nutritious waters of the Black Sea present a unique opportunity for farmers to make a quicker profit.
"Our oysters here take 16-months to reach the right size," says Pigulevsky. "The same one, farmed in Ireland or France, can take almost 3-years to reach the same size."
"The Black Sea coast of Ukraine is still a hugely under-valued asset with so much potential," says Pigulevsky. "It's also an extraordinary opportunity for investment, for risk-taking, patient investors."
With Skifian planning to expand their farm so it occupies the entire bay, and other farmers bringing their seafood cages out of the open water into the Black Sea's protected, tranquil bays, seafood production is making a comeback here.
With export plans being drafted and eyes becoming fixed on China as a new client, it seems that Ukrainian seafood will once again be on menus around the world.
For comments or story ideas please contact the author of this report, UBJ Managing Editor Jack Laurenson, at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted August 4, 2018.