All Caviar Is Expensive—but It’s Not All Sustainable

The wild beluga sturgeon is endangered, but U.S. aquaculture provides delicious alternatives.
Potato rosti topped with crème fraîche, caviar, and dill. (Photo: Ian O'Leary/Getty Images)
Aug 17, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

There’s a full moon rising tomorrow, Aug. 18, and it has a name. Known as the Sturgeon Moon, it marks the time when Native American tribes harvested those meaty, plentiful fish from Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. According to Sea Grant Michigan, “When European settlers arrived in the region, sturgeon were so numerous during the spring spawning run that they were reportedly capable of capsizing fishing boats.”

I’ll bet that wasn’t just hyperbolic prose. Sturgeon are the biggest of the freshwater fishes, gargantuan compared with other freshwater species: The largest sturgeon, the endangered beluga of Eurasia, may reach a length of 24 feet and weigh more than 3,500 pounds. A North American laker—up to eight feet long and 300 pounds—is no slouch either. Steering a boat through water roiling with them must have been a tricky business indeed.

Note the past tense. Sturgeon, which, like salmon, are an anadramous fish, are slow to reach reproductive maturity, and they spawn intermittently, so factors such as habitat loss in the rivers used as spawning and nursery grounds, disrupted migration routes due to dams and hypoxic zones, and poaching for caviar have led to depressing and all-too-predictable results.

“Globally, there is no telling how many species of sturgeon have gone extinct in the past hundred years. Nor is there any certainty, exactly, as to how many species remain,” writes Richard Adams Carey in The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire. “Even molecular analysis of DNA sometimes yields you-pick-’em results, but current estimates range from twenty-four to twenty-six species” that are still around.

Today, a healthy population, like that of white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, is a rarity. In other words, one of the most legendary fishes on the planet is in a serious heap of trouble.

It’s been on the planet for a long, long time—since the time of the dinosaurs, more than 200 million years ago. It’s no surprise, then, that the sturgeon is often described as a living fossil. Along with a back armored with razor-sharp pointed plates called scutes and a shark-like asymmetrical tail, it boasts a rather jaunty upturned snout and a toothless mouth fringed with four tactile, dangling barbels that it uses to search for food, like a catfish. It’s also no surprise that this primitive family of fishes is going the way of T. rex and company.

Or not, if the aquaculture industry has anything to say about it.

“Beginning in 1980, a group at the University of California at Davis, led by Russian émigré Serge Doroshov, developed a sturgeon hatchery system using wild fish from the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers for broodstock,” writes Jay Harlow in the 1999 book West Coast Seafood. Today, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program lists six sturgeon species farmed in eco-friendly recirculating aquaculture systems in the United States and British Columbia as “best choice.” By the mid-1990s, Harlow adds, sturgeon farmers could devote some of the eggs to the production of caviar rather than baby sturgeon.

Caviar. Even if you’ve never seen the glistening, jam-like amalgam of eggs cured with salt, let alone tasted it, you likely have an opinion about it. For some, it reeks of old-world decadence, like peacock tongues, and that’s the end of the matter (insert shudder here). For others, it’s simply an acquired taste not worth acquiring (fish eggs! expensive!). Then there are those who think its clean, marine flavor and wonderful mouthfeel make an occasion instantly memorable.

Notwithstanding the billion-dollar black market, I’d like to think that most of the folks in that last group draw the line at the most highly prized caviar in the world—that from beluga sturgeon from the Black and Caspian sea basins. After the fish was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started banning imports of beluga caviar and other beluga products the following year. The New York Times reported in September 2005 that beluga stocks, particularly in the Caspian, had declined by 90 percent in the previous 20 years.

Interestingly, beluga caviar is still listed on the website of renowned purveyor Petrossian, but more as a way of educating consumers, with an explanation of why it isn’t available—and noting that although it is “currently illegal in the U.S. through legitimate purveyors—there are retailers who continue selling through black market operations and the sale of frozen caviar.” Among Petrossian’s sustainable offerings are Tsar Imperial Transmontanus Caviar, from farm-raised white sturgeon native to California, and Royal Siberian Caviar, from Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii) raised in Florida.

So the future of caviar, it seems, lies in sustainable, domestic aquaculture, and the best examples from farm-raised fish on the market today have the burst-in-the-mouth texture that connoisseurs dream about.

Robert Gardner’s American Caviar Company sells caviar from farm-raised sturgeon (including one from America’s first nonprofit aquaculture center) as well as caviar from wild hackleback sturgeon and paddlefish, a distant cousin of the sturgeon that is found in the Mississippi–Missouri River complex.

The rainbow trout “caviar” produced by Sunburst Trout Farms, in Canton, North Carolina, has a concentrated yet gentle flavor, and salmon roe, which typically comes from wild Alaskan fish, is another sustainable choice. Even crisp-textured Japanese tobiko (flying fish roe), a common topping for sushi, makes a great garnish. There’s no need for twee spoons or to otherwise stand on ceremony. Warm some good-quality potato chips in a 350-degree oven, top with a dab of crème fraîche and a little roe or caviar, and celebrate something.