Caviar is a term used to describe fish eggs (roe) of sturgeon, a kind of fish. It is sometimes attached to the roe of other fish species. The world's best caviar is made from the unfertilized eggs—or "berries" as they are sometimes called—of the female beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. Caviar is a staple of Russian cuisine and is treat traditionally enjoyed on New Year’s Eve. It was enjoyed on a regular basis by czars and czarinas. In the old days caviar was a staple not a luxury. Engravings from the early 18th century depict caviar sellers on street corners.

An egg-filled sturgeon from the Caspian Sea ranks with bluefin as as one of the world’s most valuable fishes. The caviar from a quality beluga can sell for several hundred dollars an ounce. The eggs from a single beluga sturgeon can fetch more than $100,000.

Caviar can vary in color from jet black to pale grey to gold and even ivory. The eggs can vary in size but should be uniform. They should be moist and shiny, not soupy, broken or mushy. If is cured, refrigerated and properly at stored at 29 degrees F it can stay good for 18 months. Caviar with a strong order is a bad sign,

Russians like to eat caviar on thickly-buttered toast or bread. High in protein, caviar has long been considered an aphrodisiac because of its association with Aphrodite, the goddess of love who was born from the foam in the sea.

In the early 2000s, world caviar prices were rising sharply, as demand increased and supply decreased. Prices doubled and then they tripled and international authorities tried to crack down on fraud by implementing a labeling system.

Types of Caviar

There are three kinds of Caspian Sea caviar, each named after the types of sturgeon that produces it. Sevruga, from the smallest fish, is fine-grained, intensely black and very salty. Oscetra, from a bigger fish, is larger-grained, often paler, with a "rich, almost, fruity or earthy flavor." Beluga, the largest, whitest and rarest fish, has a delicate flavor.

Sevruga costs between $10 and $20 an ounce; Osetra between $15 and $25 an ounce; and beluga around $65 to $200 an ounce wholesale – and three times that at retail. That mean a large 14-ounce jar can cost between $300 and $800. There over 80 varieties of black caviar, each different—Caspian, Ikra, Sol, Malosol, Balyk, are but a few. Good caviar should not have a fishy smell.

Caspian Sea Russian sturgeon, beluga sturgeon and stellate (starry) sturgeon provide 90 percent of the world's caviar. Massive sturgeon from the Amur River in Siberia are close relatives of the beluga. Their "large-grained caviar" is a cheap alternative to Caspian Sea beluga. There are also varieties from the Black Sea and the Great Lakes. There is farmed sturgeon from California, France and Italy.

Ninety percent of the world’s black caviar comes from the Caspian Sea. Iran is said to produce the best caviar in the world because sturgeons that live in deep water are said to produce the best caviar and the deepest waters in the Caspian Sea are in Iranian territory. “Red caviar” comes from salmon and is relatively cheap. Caviar made from river sturgeon in the Midwest United States has a “soft, sheer “flavor. It sells for about $10 an ounce. Cheaper caviar comes from farmed American paddlefish or white sturgeon

Eating Caviar

Russian like to eat caviar with butter and bread or in a blini (a type of thin pancake) with a dollop of sour cream or straight from the spoon followed by a shot of vodka or a sip of ice-cold champagne. "It's the taste of paradise," Moscow restauranteur Sergei Bogdanov told the Washington Post. "To eat caviar—on bread, or with vodka, or with pancakes—this is true happiness."

Explaining what to look for in caviar, New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant wrote that caviar berries "can vary in size, and the color may range from pale gray to inky black...They should always be shiny, softly intact and never soupy or gritty...The best is never pasteurized, a process that extends shelf life but comprises flavor and texture. All good caviar is labeled 'malossol,' meaning little salt in Russian, referring to way it is cured.”

Marc Antoine Carême (1784-1833), one of France's most famous chefs is crediting with introducing caviar, cheesecake and coeur à la crème to France from Russia. Dishes made by famous chefs include Chef Alain Chapel's Aspic of Wild Game with Beluga Caviar. Salmon with olives and caviar is a typical French appetizers

Joel Robuchon is regarded by many gourmets as the finest chef in the 20th Century. One of his most famous dishes is caviar in aspic with cauliflower. Describing what it was like to eat it, at his restaurant in Paris, food critic Ruth Reichl wrote in the New York Times, "Every single thing we eat seems extraordinary and perfect. At times it is hard to imagine that these creations were actually constructed by human hands. We begin with gelée de caviar à la crème de chou-fleur, one of Mr. Robuchon's signature dishes. It arrives looking extremely modest, but when you cut through the cauliflower cream on top and you first hit a layer of caviar aspic and, beneath that, a thick black layer of the caviar itself. It is an odd and inspired combination; the humble flavorful cream cuts the salt and intensifies the flavor of the roe."

Some say caviar is an acquired taste, describing it as “salty, fishy and a bit squishy in the mouth”. One caviar fish farmer told NPR: "In general, I think caviar is more about the experience of eating caviar, so it's about what it makes you feel. Unfortunately, a lot of people, they kinda fear what it's going to be like.”

Caviar Producers and Consumers

Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—countries on the Caspian Sea— account for 60 percent of the caviar supply, including about 90 percent to the world's black caviar, the most valuable kind. Other producers include China, using sturgeon from the Amur River, and Romania and Bulgaria, using sturgeon from the Danube River.

The major caviar importers in 1999 were the Europe Union (130 tons), the United States (99 tons) and Japan (35 tons). As of the early 2000s, the United States imported around $40 million worth of caviar, including 80 percent of the legal beluga exports (6,500 pounds).

For people who consider eating caviar to be not enough, there is a line of caviar cosmetics by a company called La Prairie that includes Caviar Luxe Cream at $500 for a 4.3 ounce jar and Skin Caviar Concealer and Foundation for $150. The Four Season Hotel in Chicago offered caviar facials in the early 2000s for $65 for a 30 minute treatment, $155 for 180 minutes.


Sturgeons are an ancient fish that have been around for 200 million years (the dinosaurs first appeared 230 million years ago). They have a bony plate covering their skull, rows of sharp, flexible cartilage running along their back instead of a spine and stubby white whiskers like a catfish. With their ridge of bumps along their back, they look like swimming dinosaurs. During the time of the dinosaurs, they had more armor and looked like armadillos with fins.

Sturgeons are bottom feeders. Four long whiskers under their snout serve as sense organs, allowing the the fish to probe through bottom muck for snails, insect larvae, crawfish and other creatures which are sucked in with a snorkel-like mouth.

Sturgeons are slow, sluggish fish. Like sharks, they have cartilage rather than bones and have to keep moving or they sink Sturgeons have a shovel-shaped nose, which they move through the mud when they search for food, and five rows of plates along the sides of their bodies. Beluga sturgeon can grow to the size of whales. They can live to be up to a 100 years old and reach a length of 20 feet.

There are 27 different kinds of sturgeon, including six species in the Caspian Sea, of which the beluga is the largest. A 20-year-old beluga sturgeon may weigh a ton and bear enough caviar to feed a wedding party with hundreds of people. Some caviar sturgeon are so large they are hoisted out the water with a crane instead of a fishing pole.

A typical large 350-pound female sturgeon yields about 55 pounds of gray-black caviar. A massive female beluga sturgeon can weigh up to 1,300-pounds, reach 15 feet in length and carry 200 pound of roe. The largest sturgeon on a record, a 2,706-pound female, yielded 541 pounds of top quality caviar worth $700,000 in today's market. A 20-foot specimen at the museum in Astrakhan, Russia may have weighed over 3,000 pounds.

Beluga sturgeons are much larger than sevruga and osetra sturgeon, which are more numerous in the Caspian Sea than beluga sturgeon and also produce caviar. Some of the rarer species of sturgeon are already considered extinct. Beluga sturgeon take a long time to reach reproductive maturity, which is one reason why catching them for eggs can have such a devastating effect on their numbers.

Sturgeon Egg Production

Like salmon, sturgeon live most of their lives in open water— in the case of sturgeon mostly the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, Pacific and Great Lakes—and return to rivers or streams where they were born to mate and produce eggs. Two thirds of the Caspian Sea sturgeons return to the Volga.

Sturgeon mature slowly. The females of some sturgeon species do not become sexually mature until they are 18. Ones taken by fishermen are not easily replaced. Beluga sturgeon females need to weigh at least 400 or 500 pounds to produce good quality eggs. Those that weigh around 150 pounds produce of eggs of poor quality.

Caspian Sea sturgeon females spend a lot time looking for just the right place to lay their eggs, often in shallow coves along the banks of the Volga. They can carry their loads of eggs around for up to a year until the find the right place.

Female sturgeons can carry 5 million eggs, with eggs making e up 20 percent of their body weight. The eggs are difficult to remove artificially. Unlike salmon whose eggs can be squeezed with two fingers, sturgeon usually have to be cut open or hung vertically and squeezed.

Caviar Fishing

Most of the Caspian Sea sturgeon are caught during a six-week period in the spring when sturgeon begin migrating up the Volga to spawn. The most effective way to catch them is to set up wide-mesh nets that along routes the fish travel to their breeding grounds.

During the Soviet era, sturgeon fishing was banned in the Caspian Sea itself; fisherman caught the fish by setting up nets across Russia’s Volga, Azerbaijan's Kur and Kazakhstan's Ural rivers and caught the fish as they swam to the rivers to spawn.

Today, almost all he sturgeon fishing is done on the open sea before the fish spawn. Younger fish with less eggs are caught. Fishermen who work all day on rivers entering the Caspian Sea in Russia, spread out a big net, and come with only two or three fish.

When a sturgeon is caught it is dropped on the deck and bonked on the head with a mallet. The fish is cut open and the caviar is scooped out while the fish is alive to ensue freshness. The caviar is then, washed, weighed and sorted,

Caviar Processing

Describing the processing of sturgeon caught by Iranian fisherman, Robert Cullen wrote in National Geographic, the caviar master "Ismail and his assistants put on white boots, smocks, caps, masks, They wash their hands and pull on rubber gloves, as if getting ready for surgery...The fish was brought in and laid out on the granite floor...They washed, weighed, and measured it: a shade less than five feet long, a bit more than 370 pounds." [Source: Robert Cullen, National Geographic, May 1999 ^=^]

"Carefully, an assistant sliced open the fish's belly and revealed the roe: thousands of gleaming black eggs, each about the size of the point on a dull pencil. This man scooped out the roe and removed it to a sink, placing it on top of a nylon sieve. The assistant gently massaged the mass of roe and supporting tissues; the eggs fell through onto a finer screen...Finally it was time for Ismail to work. He washed the stained roe in fresh, icy water and picked away a few bits of flesh. He placed it in a stainless steel bowl and carried it through a doorway into a smaller, colder room. ^=^

“He weighed it. This [fish] yielded seven pounds of roe. Ismail consulted a chart hanging on the wall. He told an assistants to measure out 185 grams (six and a half ounces) of salt. Ismail took the salt and gently kneaded it into the roe. He never tasted the product. He felt it...Within a couple of minutes, his fingers told him that this roe had become caviar. "I don't have any discretion about how much salt to add,” he told National Geographic. "I go by the chart, which shows how many grams of salt to use per kilo of roe, depending on the time of the year...A master has to sense exactly how long to knead the salt and the roe. if you don’t do it long enough, the caviar will be immature. if you do it too long, the eggs turned into pulp. It comes from experience."^=^

"Tenderly, an assistant transferred it into tins and secured the lid with granite discs. The caviar would remain in a refrigerator a day or until a special truck came to pick it up." Even though caviar sells for $630 a pound, Ismail makes only $6 a day. Ismail told National Geographic, "I worked my way up to up to this job through several stages. I went to school where they taught me things like sanitation rules and quality control. I became an assistant master, and I worked with a master for two years. He retired, and for five years I have been master."

In some places the caviar is taken to a factory, where it is put into jars and sealed with official steel caps. Pasteurized caviar is immersed in 140 degrees F water for 2½ hours and refrigerated at 35 degrees F and shipped out to export centers. In most the world caviar is processed with salt and borax, which makes the caviar sweeter and gives it a better texture. In the United States borax is not used because it has been banned by the FDA for 50 years.

Crash of the Legal Caviar Industry

Sturgeon are endangered and overfished in the wild that they are no longer harvested legally from the Caspian Sea. It wasn’t always this way. Caviar used to be so cheap it was served as a beer snack in New York City bars. In 2001, black caviar was selling for $800 to $5,000 a kilogram on the retail market in importing countries but only $50 a kilogram in Russia.

During the Soviet era, the caviar industry was a tightly regulated state monopoly in both the Soviet Union and Iran, which controlled the Caspian Sea caviar industry. A large amount of money was invested in controlling and maintaining fish stocks. The major Soviet caviar centers were Baku, Azerbaijan and Astrakhan, Russia. Baku produced 15 tons of caviar a year (in the bumper year of 1926 it produced 550 tons). It produced caviar salamis and sent 110 pound barrels of caviar to London.

After the break up of the Soviet Union, many caviar entrepreneurs sprang up to replace the state monopolies. This created an environment in which shady practices, corruption and illegal fishing thrived. The legal sturgeon fishing industry in the Caspian Sea crashed during this time. In the 1980s, 20,000 to 26,000 tons of sturgeon were caught each year. In 1991, the Caspian Sea sturgeon catch was 8,400 tons (5,100 tons of Russian sturgeon, 2,900 tons of stellate sturgeon and 400 tons of beluga sturgeon).

In 1995, the Caspian Sea sturgeon catch was 2,250 tons (1,100 tons of Russian sturgeon, 1,000 tons of stellate sturgeon and 150 tons of beluga sturgeon). In the late 1990s, the legal catch crashed to 1,100 tons. The illegal catch was estimated at around 10,000 to 12,000 tons. The legal export of Caspian caviar in Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan fell from 2,000 tons in 1978 to 500 tons in 1991 to around 200 tons in 2001 to 150 tons in 2003.

Sturgeon were once so plentiful on the southern coat of Russia that fishermen had difficultly sailing their boat between them. The catch in 1944 was 500,000 tons. In the mid 1980s it was 30,000 tons. In 1995 only 3,100 tons of the fish were caught. In the 1970s fishermen routinely caught 60-year-old, 900-pound sturgeon. These fish that size are hardly ever seen. The average weight of sturgeon caught today s about 80 pounds. About 97 percent of the beluga swimming in Caspian Sea are from hatcheries paid with tariffs from the legal caviar trade.

Illegal Caviar Fishing

Overfishing and poaching on the Caspian Sea was not a serious problem during the Soviet era because Soviet authorities punished poachers severely. After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, a long-standing agreement between the Soviet Union and Iran, regulating sturgeon fishing, collapsed. As citizens of the former Soviet Union lost their jobs and saw their buying power decline, illegal sturgeon fishing became a temptation that was too hard for many to resist.

Most illegal fishing is done with wide-mesh nets or drift nets at night. During the six-week spawning period legal fishermen are joined by illegal fisherman as well as armed guards and patrols that try to hunt them down.

On the shores of rivers in Kazakhstan, ordinary citizens stick poles in the mud with lines attached. Known as watchmen, the 50-yard-long lines are attached to loops that grasp fish when they swim through them. The fishermen, many of them housewives and unemployed men, play cards while they are waiting and jump up when a fish is on the line. When inspectors come by they quickly scatter. if they are caught they pay a small bribe to avoid arrests. Illegal Caviar is put in mason jars that sell for about $40 a kilo. Male sturgeon provide steaks that feed families or are sold for some cash.

Describing an illegal caviar fishermen in action, Lee Hockstader wrote in the Washington Post, "Four glistening Caspian Sea sturgeon, armor plated, freshly gutted, are still writhing in the grass...Using a filthy bathtub.. Genya sets about straining, rinsing and salting the sturgeon's yield, 25 pounds of pearly black caviar. The half-hour procedure in their trash-strewn back yard will net Vova and his friends a delicious dinner and maybe $200 once they sell the roe to smugglers. [Source: Lee Hockstader, Washington Post, June 9, 1997]

Illegal Caviar Business

In the early 2000s, the illegal caviar trade was estimated to be 10 times the legal trade: $1 billion to $1.2 billion, compared to $100 million for the legal trade (2001). It thrives because there is a lot of money to be made, corruption in the industry is rampant and it is difficult to trace the source of caviar. A single suitcase full of caviar can be worth $100,000. Once a 770 pound shipment was intercepted on an air force cargo plane by FSB (KGB) agents.

The illegal caviar trade is believed to controlled the Russian mafia. An estimated 300 caviar gangs were believed to be operating along to 300 mile coastline of Dagestan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997, 67 people were killed in a war between the caviar mafia there and local police. The clash included the bombing of a nine-story building where border guards were housed.

Reputable caviar traders in the United States and Western Europe generally do not deal with dodgy, illegal caviar sellers, who are more likely to find buyers in Russia or Eastern Europe. On the streets of some Caspian Sea towns, sahdy characters whisper under their breath "Do you want caviar?" to passersby if they were selling hashish or stolen watches. The caviar is often very poor quality. Black market caviar has been sold on E-Bay.

Combating the Illegal Caviar Trade

In the early 2000s, around 500 police in patrol boats took positions in the Caspian Sea near the Volga during the spawning season to combat illegal sturgeon fishing. Some anti-poaching units were equipped with assault weapons and night vision goggles In 2000, Russian police and border guards found more than 70 tons of sturgeon trapped in illegal nets.

Even so, overall policemen and other security forces are often provide little help in tackling the illegal caviar trade. Some take bribes and demand some of the caviar or sturgeon meat, or even work for smugglers and illegal fishermen. A number of officers and investigators looking into the illegal caviar trade have died in mysterious circumstances. Authorities are overstretched just trying to stop the poachers.

Conservationists are pessimistic. The former Soviet republics lack strong rule of law and the means to enforce the rules, especially where organized crime is in control. Some have suggested a boycott of caviar is necessary similar to the successful ban on ivory in 1990.

Crashing Sturgeon Numbers

In the Soviet era, fishing limits were strictly enforced. Poaching was not a problem but pollution was. The number of sturgeon declined from a peak of 144 million in 1976 to 97 million in 1991. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, sturgeon stocks have plummeted. The number of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea crashed from 200 million to 60 million in only five years (between 1991 and 1995) as a result of overfishing. By 2000, there around 40 million. The fish caught are considerably smaller than fish caught in earlier years and there is a shortage of adults, particularly breeding females.

The numbers has crashed before. Some have said the only reason the fish have survived is because of World War I and World War II. Sturgeon fisheries were hurt by the building of dams on the Volga in the 1960s. There was also massive overfishing in the 1970s. The declining number of fish in the 1990s has caused caviar prices to rise 35 percent between 1994 and 1997 to over $100 an ounce Having the prices that high only increased the incentive to illegally catch sturgeon.

According to Russia’s Caspian Fisheries research Institute, the number of sturgeons increased from 9.3 million in 2001 to 11.6 million in 2002. These numbers were highly suspect, especially considering the fact that sturgeon take so long to mature. Some environmentalists have said the entire caviar industry is in danger of collapsing and the beluga sturgeon could become extinct in 10 years. They estimate that the population of beluga sturgeon has declined by as much as 90 percent. Others say this is an exaggeration.

The decline of sturgeon has mostly been attributed to overfishing and pollution in the fish’s Volga breeding grounds, which weakened the fish. Other factors include the loss of spawning grounds, reduced river flows, river damming, rising Caspian Sea levels. corruption, poaching and overfishing of sturgeon food sources.

Sturgeons were once plentiful around the world. They were caught in Japan, Britain and France but now are largely gone there. They can still be found in the United States but the species there don't produce great caviar. One Caspian species is already regarded as extinct from a commercial fishing point of view. In China, the Yangtze sturgeon and its cousin the Chinese paddlefish are nearly extinct and the Three Gorges dam is expected to finish them off.

Caviar, Sturgeon and the Environment

Sturgeons feed off sea, river and lake bottoms where heavy oil and other pollutants settle. Many sturgeon now bear 25 pounds of gray mush instead of shiny black eggs. These rotten eggs are believed to be caused by pollution from petrochemical plants, oil and raw sewage. The situation is expected to get worse in the Caspian Sea as oil production there is increased, especially if there is an oil spill or large pipeline leak.

Fishermen say they often have to throw fish back because they are infected with a serious virus or suffer from myopaty disease, which causes the degradation of muscular and sexual tissues, preventing reproduction. Many fish have been poisoned by a giant gas-extraction plant built near the mouth of the Volga River.

Dams built on the Volga, the breeding ground for most of the Caspian Sea’s caviar-producing sturgeon, , has blocked sturgeon from getting to their breeding grounds. Sturgeon used to migrate as far as 1,800 miles up the Volga before the dams were built.

The changing level of the Caspian Sea is believed to be affecting sturgeon populations. A one meter rise in the 1990s submerged two sturgeon hatcheries and cause rivers to flow more slowly, which in turn has causes silt to accumulate, blocking channels sturgeon used to migrate into the river. If the fish do manage to make it to their spawning grounds very rarely do they return to the Caspian Sea alive.

See Caspian Sea Pollution Under Nature and the Environment

Banning Caviar Exports and Sturgeon Fishing

In 2001, the United Nations Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) threatened to ban the export of Caspian Sea caviar in an efforts to combat the overfishing of sturgeon. As a result Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan agreed in June 2001 to halt sturgeon fishing for the rest of the year. One of the goals of the ban was to allow countries to survey sturgeon stocks and develop a management plan. The ban was ended in March 2002. Iran was not subject to the ban but Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were.

In 2004, CITIES banned the export of Caspian Sea caviar because the countries that produce it failed to provide adequate data to determine the numbers of sturgeon and failed to take adequate measures to protect the fish. In the U.S. there was some discussion of banning the import of beluga caviar on the basis that the beluga sturgeon was listed as endangered. Environmentalists encouraged people to eat caviar from farmed American paddlefish or white sturgeon.

In December 2013, Russia and other countries bordering the Caspian Sea agreed to stop fishing caviar-producing sturgeon because the fish was close to extinction. UPI reported: “Russia's Federal Fisheries Agency announced the ban, also agreed to by Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, that began in January 2014 for one year with the option of extending it for as long as five years, RIA Novosti reported. Even with the ban repopulation would be slow because female sturgeon take so long to reach sexual maturity. Russia had already banned commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian in 2002, but has been still permitting a minimal annual catch. [Source: UPI, December 27, 2013]

Efforts to Help Caviar-Bearing Sturgeon

The World Wildlife Fund has called caviar-producing countries to develop a comprehensive plan for restocking sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and establish control measures and quotas and the means for enforcing them.

Ilkryanoye (which means "Caviar Town" in Russian) is a villages beside the Volga with a large sturgeon hatchery. Fingerlings are produced from four-foot-long sturgeons raised in the hatchery. When removing the eggs, the mother is anaesthetized, the eggs are surgically removed, the opening is sewn closed and the mother is returned to its pond. Millions of fingerlings are released ever year. A hatchery on the Kura River in Neftcala, Azerbaijan also releases millions of fingerlings.

Scientists are trying to figure out a way to extract caviar from sturgeon without killing the fish One methods involves hanging the fish vertically and applying pressure on the abdomen to release the roe. This methods is not always successful, however.

The caviar industry remains under tight control in Iran and sturgeon are not as in trouble as elsewhere in the Caspian region. The muddy Ural River, which empties into the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, holds the last major spawning ground for beluga caviar.

Fish Farm Caviar

By some estimates 99 percent of the world's caviar now comes from fish farms. Historically, caviar has pretty much held its price, even in bad times so sturgeon farming is seen as a good investment. But the downside is sturgeon can live for decades and take years to reach egg-bearing age. Chuck Weirich, a PhD in animal physiology who specializes in aquaculture, told the Charlotte Observer fish farming is a way to save sturgeon. “They’re so valuable,” he says. “The good thing about aquaculture, we can have stock if the (wild) population crashes.” [Source: Kathleen Purvis, Charlotte Observer, May 11, 2014 ]

Kathleen Purvis wrote in the Charlotte Observer, “Because of problems with interbreeding and pollution from farmed salmon and poorly regulated shrimp farms in Southeast Asia, aquaculture is misunderstood by consumers, Weirich says. An inland operation Atlantic doesn’t put wild fish at risk, and the water quality is monitored. Most of the water is filtered and recycled” and the fish droppings can be composted.

“Whether there is a difference in taste between wild vs. farm-raised caviar is still debated. Michel Emery of New York was director of sales with the restaurant Petrossian and is now vice president of a global caviar distributor called Solex Catsmo. He thinks farm-raised does have a milder taste. But it’s a moot point, he says: Farm-raised is now what there is. “A lot of chefs and users are happy to be able to indulge and not be part of a problem, but part of a solution,” Emery said. “If the sturgeon in the Caspian are overfished, any responsible person would not want to be part of that.”

Kibbutz-Produced Farmed Caviar

Now 99 percent of the world's caviar comes from fish farms. A kibbutz—a small farming collective— in the mountains of northern Israel produces farmed caviar used by some of the U.S.’s top restaurants. Sheera Frenkel of NPR wrote: “At Galilee Caviar in Kibbutz Dan, Israel, there are pools of sturgeon everywhere you look. The massive fish aren't much to look at — they look like a cross between a seal and a catfish. But they demand a high price — about $2,500 each, says Yigal Ben Tzvi, the owner of the company. And each fish is a 10- to 15-year investment, he says. When we visited, it was the day Ben Tzvi began hauling these monsters out of their ponds and checking them for the quality of the caviar inside. [Source: Sheera Frenkel, NPR, May 30, 2012 /]

“The fish are carefully cultivated and the females selected for osetra caviar production. The whole thing has the air of a hospital operation. The fish are reeled in by net, and then anesthetized in smaller tanks. Biologist Avshalom Hurvitz sits at a small white table, gingerly pulling back tissue with a scalpel to show us what's inside. "These are the eggs, and they are 3 millimeters in diameter. They have a pale gray color, which is nice. I see no fat tissue here. It means that the yield of caviar will be high," Huvitz says. /

“As Huvitz pronounces the caviar Grade A, Ben Tzvi smiles. He's proud of the fact that chefs like Eric Ripert serve his caviar exclusively in their restaurants. Ben Tzvi says his caviar is superior because of the mountain spring water in the ponds and the purebred nature of his fish. "The price in New York, somebody calculated, is $9,400 per kilo," Ben Tzvi says. (Gourmet shop Dean & DeLuca sells 8.8 ounces of the stuff online to the rest of us for just under a cool $1,000.) /

“Ben Tzvi says he never set out to become a purveyor of caviar. Kibbutz Dan was at the forefront of fish farming in the early 1980s and the 1990s. The caviar business is a subsidiary of Dan Fish Farms. But as the kibbutz shifted from its socialist structure to a privatized model, Ben Tzvi and others explored new business opportunities. At first, they tried half a dozen fish before settling on sturgeon, imported from Russia as fertilized eggs. "For the first 10 years we grew them for meat, 'cause no one thought of caviar at that time," Ben Tzvi says.

Ben Tzvi decided to give farmed caviar a try. A few years later, when he started selling his product, the price doubled. Then it tripled. Galilee Caviar's marketing director, Smadar Ashkenazi, acknowledges that a lot of the caviar market is about branding and perception. She stands in the company's walk-in freezer with an open 8-ounce tin of caviar in front of her. There are about six different locks on the freezer door; Ashkenazi jokes it's guarded like a bank vault.

American Farmed Caviar

The U.S. is also home to fish farms that produce caviar-producing sturgeon. Describing one in Lenoir, North Carolina, 90 miles northwest of Charlotte,Kathleen Purvis wrote in the Charlotte Observer, “The three unmarked warehouses, out in the country surrounded by cornfields, are filled with double rows of waist-deep pools filled with sturgeon. Two young men clad in chest-high waders start pulling a few 20-pound fish out of a tank for an ultrasound test. The fish are Russian sturgeon, and the ultrasound is to check whether its belly is full of caviar. [Source: Kathleen Purvis, Charlotte Observer, May 11, 2014 ]

“The Russian, Siberian and Atlantic sturgeon swimming outside Lenoir are part of a project that took six years to see results. “It’s taken very deep pockets, and a lot of research, and a lot of good, hard labor,” says Elisabeth Wall, the marketing director of Atlantic Caviar. “Buyers are very excited.”

“Atlantic Caviar started there with two men: cargo pilot Joe Doll and retired pharmaceutical manufacturer Bill White. “Both of them were very grounded dreamers,” Wall says. Around 1998, White sold his company, Greer Laboratories, and wanted an investment. Doll flew in and out of Russia and saw the trouble with dwindling Russian sturgeon. Both were from the area, and they knew it had good water. So aquaculture was a natural choice. But they wanted something more interesting than tilapia or catfish.

“Atlantic’s first batches of sturgeon hatchlings were placed in tanks in late 2005. Then there was a six-year wait. Along the way, White died and left his share to the company and to N.C. State University, which has helped with the project. In 2012, the first fish were big enough to yield” caviar. Chuck Weirich has a doctorate in animal physiology and specializes in aquaculture. He now works for Atlantic, supervising the operation.

“While there has been work in alternate methods to get the eggs from live fish, including a form of cesarean section, Atlantic harvests its caviar the traditional way: First, they use ultrasound to find out whether a fish is male or female. Then the females are checked regularly, until they have eggs that are large enough and have the right texture and size. After the fish is dispatched with a single blow to the head, it is carefully wiped clean, then slit open through the tough, shark-like skin. Inside, the dark eggs are packed together so closely, they look like asphalt. A single mature Russian sturgeon can produce almost 4 pounds of eggs. While they harvested 400 kilos last year, or 880 pounds, they’re hoping to reach 850 kilos this year. Atlantic Caviar will have the North American market to itself for a few years.

“The meat and caviar have made it into famous places in New York, including Petrossian and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. Before coming to Charlotte, Heirloom chef Clark Barlowe worked at both the French Laundry in California and El Bulli in Spain. Barlowe says what Atlantic is producing is as good as anything he’s tried at those world-famous kitchens.”

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Last Updated May 2016

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