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Caviar Demand Is Decimating Fish Populations

Caviar is fancy as shit. But luxury comes at a cost, and in the case of caviar that cost is the health of fish populations all over the globe.
Foto: Luc De Leeuw | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Caviar: it's fancy as shit. Liberace was inclined to serve it on top of his famous cheese dip, and $1,000 caviar facials are a thing you can buy. Everything about those salty, oily fish eggs is pure luxury: the tiny, perfectly round orbs glistening in their tin; the little sculpted mother-of-pearl spoon that absolutely must be used to mete out the delicate eggs, lest their flavor be adulterated by a metallic taste; its careful, step-by-step preparation, whether the caviar is spooned onto a buttery, sour cream-topped blini or even dexterously dolloped onto a crisp round of buttered toast and sprinkled with finely chopped egg white and yolk. But luxury comes at a cost, and in the case of caviar that cost is the health of fish populations all over the globe.

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Caviar has a long and storied past worldwide, but it's particularly prized in Iran. Sturgeon—the huge, prehistoric-looking, bottom-dwelling fish that produce prized beluga caviar—are native to the Caspian Sea, and for centuries, fishermen in the three northern provinces that border the sea have harvested the fish in order to strip them of the 10-15 kilos of roe contained in the females' abdomens. Beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea has long been regarded as the gold standard, which has had unfortunate consequences for sturgeon. Because of mankind's longstanding and voracious appetite for caviar, enthusiastic overfishing of both Atlantic and European sturgeon caused the worldwide population to plummet. Both species are now critically endangered, and in most countries, it's illegal to fish for either of them.

Perhaps because it's now doubly rarified—not only is it illegal to produce, but it's also illegal to bring into much of the Western world because of US and European sanctions against Iran—wild-caught Caspian Sea caviar has acquired a reputation for being the best that money can buy (and you need a lot of money to buy it: back in 2005, before the US enacted a ban on all imports of beluga caviar, a kilogram of the stuff fetched about $12,000). But not all caviar connoisseurs give a fuck about it.

"There's no reason to consider Iranian caviar the best," said Robert Gardner, the president of and self-appointed "caviar concierge" at American Caviar Company, which sells both wild-caught and farm-raised caviar online and at its New York City store. "Maybe people feel that way because historically, that's the reputation it's had. Or maybe it's that special flavor that all the motor oil gives it," Gardner joked, referring to the high levels of pollution in the Caspian Sea.

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In Gardner's opinion, most people who buy caviar have no idea how it's supposed to taste, but they purchase beluga because they've been told that it's good.

"It's kind of like, if you're a man, and you put on a Ralph Lauren suit. You're all like, 'Ooooh, I'm wearing a Ralph Lauren.' But you know what? Ralph Lauren is crap!" he said. "It's the same thing with beluga caviar. Beluga became all, 'Oh my God.' But people don't know what the hell beluga is."

Alexandre Petrossian, the vice president of the Paris-based caviar company Petrossian, was inclined to agree.

"Iran has a good caviar, but we sell beautiful farmed caviars that are just as good, if not better," he told me. "There are some very nice farms out there that do a great job."

Individual opinions on the quality of beluga caviar may vary—"taste is a subjective field," Gardner said—but its reputation persists. That's bad news both for wild sturgeon—continued seizures of wild-caught beluga indicate that there's a thriving black market for the stuff—as well as for the sturgeon's humble American cousin, the paddlefish. Native to central US rivers, paddlefish have fallen prey to a brisk poaching trade whose epicenter is in Ozarks. Poachers kill the fish—which are protected under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES)—and harvest their eggs. They then pass the roe off to caviar dealers who label it as Russian caviar and sell it for up to $550 per pound. In an article entitled "Caviar's Last Stand," journalist Michelle Nijhuis describes how in 1986, hundreds of pounds of Missouri paddlefish roe ended up in the hands of the well-known New York City caviar dealer Isidoro "Mario" Garbarino, who labeled it as Russian caviar and sold it to Pan Am Airlines for up to $300 an ounce. The once-plentiful paddlefish is now staring down the same fate as its more glamorous European relative: they're extinct in four states and in Canada, and are considered endangered in 11 of the 22 states where they still live.

It's easy to see how high-end chefs—with their generous budgets—could be bamboozled into buying a luxury product that's intentionally misrepresented to them by professional dealers like Garbarino. But for years, individual consumers faced similar problems when buying caviar. In a study conducted from 1995-1998, a team of scientists from Stony Brook University and the American Museum of Natural History found that 19 percent of 90 samples of caviar for sale in New York City was mislabeled, with less-desired types of caviar such as baeri being sold as osetra. But stricter labeling laws appear to be helping: from 2006-2008, the study was repeated, and no examples of fraud were found.

So this New Year's Eve, when you're cracking open your expensive tin of caviar to make Liberace's cheese dip, you can maybe-probably be sure that what's on the label is indeed what's inside.