Caviar goes green, as eggs from farmed domestic sturgeon now rival the best russian roe
In the damp and cavernous warehouse, conversation drowns in the echo of splashing. In the rows of concrete pools, each 40 feet square and 10 feet deep, roiling water marks the presence of tens of thousands of fish barely discernable in the dim light. At a pool nearest the roll-up door, the light from an overcast day penetrates the clear water and illuminates a pool filled with sturgeon.
Sturgeon have been swimming the rivers and seas of
the northern hemisphere largely unchanged since the reign of the dinosaur
over 200 million years ago. But today, these nearsighted bottom feeders
face an uncertain future, not merely from the ubiquitous water pollution
and habitat loss, but also from a curious form of human gluttony.
While all 27 sturgeon species are in some degree of
trouble, a few are being fished aggressively toward extinction because
their eggs go so well with salt and a champagne chaser. Sturgeon roe makes
the world’s most coveted caviar.
Those who crave caviar seem above all to want their
fish eggs delivered from the Caspian Sea, where 90 percent of the world’s
caviar supply originates and where the beluga sturgeon is dangerously
near extinction. Those working to protect sturgeon are demanding bans
on Caspian caviar imports, particularly to countries with the biggest
appetite and pocketbook for caviar: the United States, Japan, the European
Union, and Switzerland. But, at the same time, sturgeon advocates are
pushing another means of helping preserve wild sturgeon populations—caviar
produced from aquaculture, exquisite enough to satisfy connoisseurs.
Such caviar may originate in the female white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) now swimming at my feet. Indigenous to the west coast of North America, these sturgeon are at least five feet long, with belly sections thick as a runner’s thigh. Their gray-skinned bodies move through the water with muscular flicks of shark-like tails, a motion made supple by spinal cartilage. Five rows of bony plates serve as body armor.
A few blunt snouts rise to the surface of the pool,
trailing whiskers, or barbels, that “taste” the presence of
food; the sturgeon relies much more on its sense of taste than on its
inferior eyesight. The primitive eating tube, which emerges as needed
from an ungainly position deep in the fish’s chin, makes an ugly
mouth but an excellent vacuum. When not in use, the tube retracts.
The very tiny teeth that juvenile sturgeon use for scraping
food from rocks are only temporary tools. Over time a sturgeon will grow
to depend wholly on inhalation to procure food, sucking in all the mollusks,
fish eggs, crayfish, worms, and other small fare it can swallow; when
large enough, it will also devour the likes of anchovies and post-spawning
salmon that drift dead along river bottoms.
The wholly toothless adult, although it cannot bite or chew, scavenges with abandon. Supported by a remarkably hearty digestive system, sturgeon have been known to dine on disintegrating ducks, baby seals, drowned cats, and even tin cans.
Left to their own devices, sturgeon will eat their
way toward whale-like proportions. In fact, the beluga sturgeon dwarfs
all other freshwater fish species on the planet. Centuries ago in eastern
Europe, someone fished up a beluga 28 feet long and weighing close to
4,600 pounds. In the same era, an enormous, ripe female beluga was caught;
her roe alone weighed 900 pounds.
White sturgeon run a close second in size to the beluga.
Giants of the species found on this continent include a 20-foot specimen
from the Fraser River in Canada, caught in 1912 and weighing 1,800 pounds,
and a 1,500-pounder pulled from the Snake River as recently as 1928.
When Stafford Lake reservoir in Novato, California, was partially drained for dam repairs in 1985, the legendary “monster” long said to have haunted the waters was revealed to be a 170 pound white sturgeon about 65 years old and 7 feet long. It was captured live but did not, however, survive relocation to the Academy’s Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. One legend even claims Scotland’s famed Loch Ness monster is a dirigible-sized sturgeon.
But sturgeon this size are mere fish tales now. Thanks
to poaching and habitat destruction, the time of truly massive sturgeon
Females, which produce on average between 300,000 and
4 million eggs to insure survival of one sturgeon, may spawn only once
every 2 to 8 years. If they become excessively stressed, females will
simply absorb their eggs until their next spawning cycle. Since sturgeon
are said to live between 80 and 100 years, fully restoring a sturgeon
population would take at least a century.
Over the last five years, poaching has cut the sturgeon
population in San Francisco Bay and Delta in half. Poachers may try to
catch spawning females but more often go up and down the river trying
to buy ripe female sturgeon from fishermen. A few years ago, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service helped the state Department of Fish and Game
break up a large caviar poaching ring operating in the Delta; they made
around 20 arrests and seized $12,000 worth of caviar.
Aside from the threat of arrest, poachers have little
incentive to stop killing sturgeon. Ten pounds of roe sells on the black
market for $1,000. According to Inga Saffron, author of Caviar: the
Strange and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy,
for every pound of sturgeon eggs fished up legitimately for the worldwide
caviar market, ten pounds of illegal eggs are sold.
The snob appeal of Caspian caviar is a formidable obstacle
to those trying to preserve wild sturgeon. Nevertheless, more and more
people are becoming converts to the domestically farmed caviar of western
Europe, China, and the United States.
The most consistently admired domestic caviar is Sterling,
the brand of caviar made here at Stolt Sea Farm in Elverta, California,
just north of Sacramento. These sturgeon are bred from domestic stock;
the original brood stock came from the Sacramento River. With no river
in sight, this remote acreage seems a rather dry spot for a fish farm;
however, well water is plentiful here and emerges at a consistent 70 degrees.
“A hundred miles north or south would have different well water,”
explained Peter Struffenegger, who manages the farm. “It’s
the warm water that allows sturgeon to grow year-round, which doesn’t
happen in the wild because of seasonal water temperature fluctuations.”
The reliably warm water isn’t just good for the
fish, but keeps tank heating bills down as well. The venture has proved
costly enough; it took eleven years of fish tending before the first tins
of caviar hit the market.
Yet in the nine years since then, this upstart caviar
has done well.
From a mere 50 pounds of caviar in their first year,
Stolt, by far the largest producer in the States, last year sold caviar
in the tons. The fact that the swanky Manhattan gourmet store Zabar’s
carries Sterling should be endorsement enough, yet it has also been praised
in food reviews from the Wine Spectator to Seafood International. Restaurants
in San Francisco and New York keep it on the menu, some to the exclusion
of Caspian imports. Other related species are being farmed for their roe
in other U.S. states, but it is California-grown caviar that has fared
particularly well in blind tastings. Still, some people continue to refuse
anything without a Russian label. Shady caviar dealers exploit this bias,
and many a snob has been unwittingly deceived.
Under the Soviet Union, the Caspian caviar trade was
tightly regulated. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991, overfishing
and illegal caviar production has skyrocketed. In this corrupt market,
many a connoisseur paid for beluga and received lesser roe. For example,
paddlefish caviar—possessing a less complex flavor than sturgeon
caviar—was labeled as beluga and sold by the ton to airlines and
cruise ships. No one seemed to notice the difference. Caviar shipments
to the U.S. are now genetically analyzed to verify authenticity.
Even when the stuff labeled beluga is the real thing,
it can come with unwanted extras. Some Caspian poachers make caviar outofdoors
under filthy conditions, or rinse it in Volga River water contaminated
with high levels of bacteria, viruses, and industrial chemicals.
While black market caviar production standards are questionable,
the preservation and transport standards are even lower. Salt is the traditional
ingredient used to preserve the eggs, but caviar is routinely adulterated
with less savory additives. For example, Saffron writes that some countries,
including Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, preserve and sweeten
caviar with borax—a household roach killer. The use of borax is
illegal in U.S. caviar production. Caviar shipments smuggled into this
country in suitcases have traveled for an unknown length of time and without
the benefit of refrigeration.
It’s more than a little chilly in the processing
rooms at Stolt. Before entering the metal building, I dip the soles of
my shoes in a small tub of disinfectant. Inside the temperature drops
to 40 ºF and I shiver while donning the requisite hairnet and wrap-around
lab apron. Thus clad I stand in a hall where fresh sturgeon meat is being
packed in an iced shipping container. Through vertical slats of plastic
hanging in the “kitchen” doorway, I can see the caviar masters
The room’s white sinks, counters, walls and aprons
all conspire to draw the eye toward the glistening mass of tiny green-black
spheres cradled in the gloved hands of a worker. The roe is brought to
this frigid room seconds after it is cut from the fish. It is rinsed and
gently pressed by hand through a sieve to separate the eggs from each
other. It is critical not to bruise the eggs in the process. The eggs
are rinsed, drained, and lightly salted, a method known as malossol. A
100 pound sturgeon produces about 10 pounds of caviar, each egg about
1/8” in diameter.
Caviar masters distinguish the quality of sturgeon roe
by sight and bite. The eggs must be firm, attractive and tasty. There
should not be a fishy quality to the taste, but a complex, subtle flavor
suggestive of the ocean. Color, too, is a big deal to caviar eaters. Roe
that fails the test is discarded. The rest is gently placed by hand into
tins stored at 22-24 ºF, safely above its freezing temperature. There
it will age for at least three months, which will enhance its buttery
flavor. The flavor of Sterling caviar compares closely with osetra caviar,
from the Russian sturgeon.
While there is some hope of breeding sturgeon to select
for superior caviar characteristics such as firmness, egg size, color
and taste, preliminary studies by researchers at UC Davis haven’t
been too promising. “We only sampled a few hundred fish,”
explained Jeff Rodzen, geneticist at UC Davis and Department of Fish and
Game who completed the three-year study in 2001. “But there appear
to be no heritable traits other than size.”
As a result, Stolt relies on a surgical incision to
distinguish males from females. While still juveniles, males are removed
to a holding tank where they will fill restaurant orders for sturgeon
meat. At present, farmed sturgeon offers an advantage over wild-caught
Delta fish that retain high levels of mercury in their flesh.
Most females are put back in their pools for another
five to seven years, until they are ready to produce their first batch
of roe. Afterwards the brood fish are returned to the water until they
are prime for harvesting again in another two to eight years.
fishmeal pellets strewn by robotic arm over pools that
cover five square acres. Likely due to the consistently warm water, a
steady nutritious diet and relative lack of stress, the female sturgeon
at Stolt become ripe—ready to spawn—without artificial inducement
anywhere between eight and ten years of age. After their roe have been
removed, females are also sold for their meat.
In a small tasting room across from the caviar production
room, I am handed a tiny plastic spoon and invited to partake of the salted
orbs. Caviar must never be eaten with a metal spoon, and tradition calls
for mother-of-pearl, but plastic works very well. I dig in. As I roll
the eggs around on my tongue then savor the small pops of resistance the
firm roe make against my teeth, I am pleased. It tastes like mild, salted
seafood with a novel texture. Food critics call the flavor “rich
and buttery,” though neither comparison comes to mind for me. I
do wonder how much of my enjoyment is determined by taste and how much
Before legend sang the praises of caviar, people often
found the slippery dark masses of salted fish egg entirely disagreeable.
King Louis XV of France received a gift of the very finest caviar sent
by emissary from Peter the Great. At first bite he spat the stuff on the
palace floor in disgust. For many years caviar was a throwaway food, pressed
into loaves and eaten by the lower-class poor or given away at liquor
establishments to increase thirst. American settlers threw sturgeon roe
to pigs. It would take time and imagination to transform pig slops into
Today, eating a spoonful of wild-caught caviar is like
wearing an endangered fur. According to Vikki Spruill, president of the
international ocean conservation group SeaWeb, eating beluga is in fact
the height of rudeness. "It’s absolutely in bad taste, says
Spruill, "to eat the eggs of a fish that is in such dire straits."
For those who don’t care about saving the last beluga, aquaculture at leastoffers an untainted food product. “One thing we have that the Caspian Sea doesn’t,” boasts Struffenegger, “is a very consistent product.” Certainly the conditions under which it is made are comparatively consistent and clean; for half the price, California aquaculture offers an alterative to black market deceptions, borax preservatives and mushy roe tainted with dirty Volga River water.
Julianne Poirier Locke is a journalist and author. She lives at the foot of Mount St. Helena, in California.