Caviar is one of the most expensive foods in the world. Selling for up to $35,000 per kilo, it’s revered and relished by aristocrats across the globe. But it’s an acquired taste. Turns out, caviar wasn’t always so valuable. In the 19th century, sturgeon species in the US were so common that there are accounts of caviar being offered in saloons for free, like bar nuts. In Europe, fishermen were feeding the eggs to their pigs or leaving it on the beach to spoil. What changed?
Similar to true champagne, caviar doesn’t come from just anywhere. This, for example, is not caviar. To get the real thing, it has to be eggs from a sturgeon. There are 27 species around the world in North America, Europe, and Asia. But probably not for long.
Arne Ludwig: In this case, sturgeon will die out because humans are over-harvesting their populations and destroying their habitats.
In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed 18 species on its Red List of Threatened Species, making the sturgeon the most endangered group of species on Earth. But lists like these are bittersweet. On the one hand, they can help protect the sturgeon from further population decline. On the other hand, the rarer that caviar becomes, the more we can’t get enough of it. There’s actually an economic idea that explains this. It’s called the rarity value thesis and it describes how “rarity increases the value of the item.” Sturgeon can weigh up to several thousand pounds, and produce hundreds of pounds of roe at a time. The world record belongs to a beluga sturgeon that weighed 2,520 pounds and yielded 900 pounds of roe. Today, she’d be worth about half a million dollars.
It wasn’t until around the 20th century when these freshwater fish and their eggs became a rare commodity. Pollution poisoned their waters and dams blocked their spawning grounds upstream. They had nowhere to reproduce and continued to be overfished for their meat and roe. On top of that, it takes 8-20 years for a female to sexually mature, depending on the species. She can produce millions of eggs at a time, but odds are that only one will survive to adulthood. In the end, the sturgeon population couldn’t keep up with demand and their coveted eggs became the jewels of the luxury food scene. Today, caviar imports and exports are closely regulated in the US., which is partly why it’s so expensive.
Deborah Keane: People forget that every single egg, every one of these eggs is taken off by hand. Now, remember that we’re dealing with a raw seafood endangered species. So it is basically like eating and dealing with edible elephant tusks. It is that heavily regulated.
That’s why today, the majority of caviar comes from sturgeon farms.
Deborah Keane: Little did I know that by 2011, all wild caviar would become illegal on the planet. When I started there were six farms in the world and only two producing caviar in the world and that was in 2004. Now, there are 2,000 farms.
One farm, in particular, in China called Kaluga Queen produces 35% of the world’s caviar. Caviar there is harvested with the classic Russian and Iranian technique, which involves killing the fish and then extracting the eggs. Other farms are exploring a different technique, which doesn’t involve killing the fish. It’s called stripping. The fish are injected with a hormone that triggers their urge to release eggs. Farmers have been doing this for many years, but not to get caviar — just to produce more fish. It wasn’t until recently that people started canning this stuff and selling it as caviar.
Dmitrijs Tracuks: The biggest thing is that yes, fish stays alive. You have a really small impact on the fish because you do it really fast. You take the fish out of the water, you put it on the special holding facility. The fish has already started to spawn and so all that requires is to press on the belly, massage the belly and the caviar will just flow out of the fish.
The idea behind no-kill caviar is a commendable one, but it has yet to catch on. Either way, with caviar farms in place, this gives the wild sturgeon population a chance to recover. But whether or not, that happens is largely up to us.