The Other Black Gold

The Other Black Gold

Mini Teaser: The United States may surpass the Caspian Sea as the world's largest supplier of caviar.

by Author(s): Julia Watson

Belly up to a bar in 19th-century New York, and chances are you would have been standing close to a bowl of caviar serving peanut duty on the counter to encourage a profitable thirst among the punters. The glistening beads would not have made the long haul from Persia or Imperial Russia. They would have been fished from wild sturgeon undulating their way up the Delaware, Columbia and Hudson Rivers of the east coast of the United States.

By the end of the "Gay '90s", the United States was the largest caviar producer in the world, processing over 600 tons a year. It shipped most of its product to Europe, where Russian caviar labels were stuck on and much of it imported back into the United States. Nearly 90 percent of so-called Russian caviar sold in Europe and the United States in fact came from the Delaware River. Until the American sturgeon was fished to near extinction in the early 1900s, around 150,000 pounds of caviar were harvested annually from native waterways. The meat of the plundered fish became a mainstay of the local diet known as "Albany beef." Young boys played football in the streets of New York with the large sturgeon muzzles.

Containing 47 vitamins and minerals, caviar is one of the most nutrionally complete foods. The ancient Persians, who believed it cured a ream of ailments, called it "Chav-Jar", or "Cake of Power", and consumed it regularly to improve their stamina. They probably didn't eat as much as Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who taxed sturgeon fishermen eleven tons of top-grade caviar annually. Organized caviar production even took place on the Gironde in 18th-century France, under the auspices of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister to Louis XVI of France.

Caviar hasn't always been viewed as a luxury by everyone. During the Second World War, when British sailors of the Arctic convoys lying at anchor in Murmansk were offered dishes of the gleaming eggs by Russian sailors' wives honoring their heroic passage through the ice floes, they dismissed it disparagingly as fish jam. Telling them caviar featured in Aristotle's writings would not have swayed them. But they might have been impressed to learn the sturgeon evolved before the dinosaur, more than 250 million years ago, and that the Beluga, the most prized sturgeon of all, can live for 150 years, grow to nearly 20 feet, and weigh more than 2,500 pounds. At least it could until recently, when pollution changed its conditions for the worse. Bottom feeders, the Caspian sturgeon has been found to suffer from muscle degeneration caused by exposure to toxic pollutants from petroleum and heavy metals in the mud.

Under particular circumstances, caviar can be viewed without the respect commonly its due. In Soviet Moscow of the 1980s, when acquiring supplies unremarkable in the West was a daily challenge, the foreign editor of the Washington Post came to visit his correspondent. Dinner was arranged with members of the foreign press. "Oh, my!" exclaimed the editor, upon spying the gleaming mountain of Beluga surrounded by quarters of lemon on the table. "Where did you get that caviar?" "Oh, Lord!" moaned the deprived ex-pat scribes, "Where did you get those lemons?"

With the collapse of the Soviet Union came the rise in caviar poaching. In 1994, Russian government officials arrested 1,452 poachers, confiscating over 120 tons of caviar. Seven illegal caviar processing plants were shut down. By 2000, Russian organized crime gangs were believed responsible for a 97 percent decline in official catches in the Caspian Sea basin, the chief source of caviar with 60 percent of the world's supply. At the end of that same year, officially recorded catches of sturgeon in the Caspian were down to 550 tons, from 20,000 tons in the late 1970s. With the Caspian shoreline too long to be easily patrolled, and with sales of caviar so lucrative, it's not surprising that much of the smuggling is done with the complicity of corrupt officials in the countries that border the sea.

Four years ago, however, Iranians in the southern part of the massive sea began raising sturgeon fingerlings to restock the Caspian. Twenty-five million were released in 2000 into the sea's cleaner, deeper southern waters. Iran has also ended its state monopoly on the export of caviar in an attempt to revive the industry.

But given the time it takes for a sturgeon to mature and release its eggs, reversing the situation will not happen quickly. The female Beluga sturgeon, whose eggs are large, soft and creamy, light to dark gray, needs 18 years to mature, which partly accounts for caviar's high price. An Osetra will deliver her golden-yellow to light brown eggs at twelve to 15 years of age. The most prolific sturgeon is the Sevruga, whose eggs--the smallest--are produced at seven years.

The price of Russian and Iranian caviar, never a snip, has risen to around $180 an ounce since August 31, 2004. This is the date all exports of 2004 caviar were halted by the United Nations until the main exporting countries (the culprits to insert here are Russia in prime place, followed by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) provide an accurate measurement of their wild sturgeon harvest and come to an agreement over effective resource management, in an effort to protect endangered wild sturgeon. The ruling has been as hard to enforce as the conservation measures imposed on the same countries in June 2002. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or cites, an international treaty with over 160 signatory nations that made these demands, has no control over the Russian domestic market, whose large appetite has helped keep prices high as sturgeon are being fished out. In the past two decades, the world's Beluga sturgeon population has declined 90 percent.

So it should be a relief to those whose household budgets aspire to include a modest scoop of caviar that Osetra, whose grains are slightly smaller than Beluga, is now being farmed successfully on the west coast of the United States. Though not for sale at peanut prices, domestic caviar is back on the market thanks to pioneers like adventurous Swedes Mats and Dafne Engstrom, whose Tsar Nicoulai company produces California Estate Osetra, and the Stolt Sea Farm, whose farm-raised white sturgeon eggs are for sale in four grades of "Sterling" caviar--Classic, Premium, Royal Black and Imperial.

Stolt Sea Farm in Elverta, California, is part of a colossal worldwide fish-farming enterprise, Stolt Sea Farm Holdings, Ltd. A company employing 2,300 in 23 offices from Scotland to Chile, it produces, processes, sells and distributes, depending on the country, 60,100 tons of Atlantic salmon and salmon trout, quantities of farmed turbot, halibut, tuna, sole, tilapia and, for more than 15 years, nearly 4,000 pounds of caviar from three separate sturgeon farms in California.

By contrast, Tsar Nicoulai, run by Mats and Dafne Engstrom, is a small affair. But the Engstroms could probably be crowned the czar and czarina of the revived American caviar business. Exporting crayfish from the Sacramento River to Sweden in 1975, they heard through their crayfishermen, who also fished for their own pleasure, that sturgeon could be found in some of California's rivers. When pressed by the Engstroms to describe what they did with the roes, they revealed that, being as revolted by "fish jam" as the British sailors, they were either tossing the precious sturgeon roe back into the water, or feeding it to their cats. Horrified and excited, the Engstroms persuaded them to part with their next catch, and with thirty pounds-worth to hand, set about teaching themselves the art of caviar-making. It took two years. But no sooner did they discover the knack than they learned they were breaking the law. It was illegal to sell the caviar, since the wild white sturgeon is classified in California and throughout the United States as a game fish. This categorization prevents its commercial sale or the sale of its by-products.

Determined not to be thwarted from their goal, the Engstroms assembled samples of their precious wares and flew with copious bottles of Napa Valley champagne to Washington to lobby for funds to research farming California sturgeon for its caviar. Senators and congressmen in the Capitol were impressed by their enthusiasm and more so by their product. "It was a helluva party", Mats Engstrom reminisces, "a smashing success." Over $800,000 was granted immediately for research at the University of California at Davis, fondly known as the Foodie Uni. And in 1983, the Engstroms' caviar farm was in business.

By late spring of 1984, the reputation of their caviar had spread to Julia Childs, who invited the couple onto her television program. While they were on the air, the sturgeon farm, along with its entire stock of fish, burned down. Though the farm was rebuilt, they fell out with their investors, who wanted to farm the sturgeon for their meat alone. So in 1985, at the invitation of the Chinese government, the Engstroms packed their bags and set out to the Heilongjiang River on the Sino-Soviet border (called the Amur River on the Russian side) to turn Chinese sturgeon, which grow to 2,000 pounds in weight, into a national caviar industry. The first Westerners to visit the area since 1917, they arrived in an unheated jeep in minus forty-degree weather after an 18-hour drive from the nearest city.

Essay Types: Essay