(MENAFN - AFP) Sergei Kulik slowly hoists a cage from the Black Sea off Russian-annexed Crimea and looks on in admiration. Beyond the slimy layer of mud are oysters -- and Kulik's dreams of financial success.
Kulik runs the only oyster and mussel farm in Crimea, which Russian soldiers took over a year ago from Ukraine. The takeover unleashed Western sanctions and hard times for many, but for Kulik and his oysters the upheaval could mean gold.
After the Kremlin's retaliatory embargo banning European food -- including oysters -- from Russian dinner tables, Kulik has suddenly won an opening.
"People sign up for tastings one week in advance, there is a line," he said.
"Moscow and Saint Petersburg are attacking me" with phone calls, he told AFP in a boat at his farm off the coast of Crimea's southernmost tip, close to the beach town of Simeiz.
- Tsarist-era delicacy -
Before the 1917 communist revolution Crimea was a tsarist retreat and the peninsula's southern coast, particularly Yalta, is dotted with 19th century palaces and spas.
It became a booming resort for the aristocracy after the Crimean war Russia fought with Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, leading in 1856 to the reopening of the Black Sea for trade.
The Black Sea oyster became so popular that a major farm was launched in 1894 in Sevastopol, in the southwest of the peninsula.
Production reached five million oysters a year by the end of the century, serving the Russian court and restaurants in Europe. But the Bolshevik revolution brought an end to such epicurean delights.
Now Kulik hopes to restore the trade in Crimea, pioneering industrial-scale production a century after it was destroyed.
The local oyster species has been decimated by invasive predatory sea snails introduced in the last century, so he grows the hardier Pacific variety, bringing baby oysters from France to mature in tiered cages suspended from an underwater cable.
His farm is a local curiosity. Some restaurants are making the oyster a focus of their menus catering to affluent Russian tourists.
"It's a must for the menu" of Yalta's upscale Villa Elena hotel, the restaurant's chef Bogdan Parinov told AFP. "They are light and delicate, but with a more pronounced taste of the sea."
Served on a bed of sea pebbles, the Crimean oysters on the menu cost 550 rubles ($8.90) a piece, but demand still far outstrips supply, Parinov added.
- Dreaming big -
A deficit of shellfish after the Western embargo has forced some Moscow restaurants to rebrand. One seafood outlet called Oyster Bar now operates under the name No Oyster Bar and has switched to burgers.
Meanwhile Kulik's revenues increased by 50 percent as prices shot up but his small business employing just several people has yet to turn a profit.
To expand he has bought an Italian boat with a production line: smaller size shellfish are replanted into the sea while marketable oysters are sold and served at a bed and breakfast he owns nearby.
He also needs to build facilities on shore, including a crane for his boat and a reservoir that would protect oyster beds during winter storms.
For the moment his work boat has to be moored elsewhere for most of winter, and his colleagues still dive to harvest the shellfish, a process he describes as "hellish labour."
"I have to take a rope, untie the cage from the cable and then raise it with the rope," one of Kulik's employees, Yevgeny Stepin, told AFP as he sat catching his breath after a dive.
At full capacity, the farm could grow 500,000 oysters a year and up to 50 tonnes of mussels. "If we grow that much, that's a million euros," Kulik said.
"Restaurants want to buy but I don't have enough."
With Moscow's eye focused on Crimea's development, Kulik is hoping to secure some state financing and settle land issues with local officials who have so far refused to grant him a building permit.
This month a visiting delegation including the speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house, Sergei Naryshkin, had a taste of his oysters.
"How could they not help me now" Kulik said with a laugh.