Bret W. Lester

My Time at a Sturgeon Farm

After graduating college, I got a job at an aquaculture facility in California paying 29k per year which barely covered the cost of living even then. At this facility they grew white sturgeon in huge circular concrete tanks. When the female sturgeon reached maturity at about 15 years old, they would harvest their eggs which would be sold on the world’s markets as caviar, the renowned delicacy.

The problem with raising sturgeon, other than the minimum 15 years to maturity, is that you can’t tell by looking at them if their eggs are ready to be harvested. So you have to biopsy the fish to find out. The biopsy procedure consisted of first sedating the fish, flipping them over, then sticking them in the abdomen with a metal straw, applying a little bit of suction, removing the straw then examining its contents in your palm. If beautiful black eggs came out then the fish was ready to be trucked to another facility for harvesting. If not, the fish would be left in the tank to mature another year.

And those fish, the ones left in the tank, were the unfortunate ones because a significant number of them would die to bacterial infections stemming from the biopsy procedure. You see, the incision to make way for the metal straw exposes the animal’s insides to the smorgasbord or microbes inhabiting the water in which they live, and this would often lead to their demise.

And that’s why the fish farm was unprofitable, and that’s why a significant portion of my daily duties involved burring dead fish with a Bobcat (that’s a small tractor for those who don’t know). Yea these fish are huge. You need a tractor to burry them. You can imagine the stench in the scorching California summer heat. It stunk and it was quite sad. Sturgeon are amazing, beautiful fish and to see them wasted this way was pretty depressing.

They tried a number of things to prevent the infections including attempts at sterilizing the incision with iodine. They even tried an expensive ozone filtration system that broke all the time. Nothing was working. The fish continued to die and the investors in the facility were getting impatient.

I only worked there for about 3 months before being let go. I won’t get into why but some of it had to do with me being a terrible laborer, and some of it had to do with me being immature and confused. I don’t know how the farm is doing now or if it’s still in business but I think about the mortality problem a lot. I wonder if there’s a better way than biopsy, like some sort of sonar device. Who knows.

Anyway, this was right after college (about 20 years ago now), before I ever wrote my first line of code. I definitely wouldn’t have believed you at the time if you told me I’d be making 6 figures as a programmer just a few years later. The period of time between losing my job at the sturgeon farm and getting my first job as a developer was one of the hardest of my life.


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