Food preferences vary from person to person – your favorite dish is bound to be someone else’s most hated. This is particularly true for items with strong tastes or unusual textures. But one of the most valued items falls into this category of loved or reviled. And it is part of a tenuous fishery that has struggled for years.
Caviar is the roe (eggs) from the sturgeon. Considered a delicacy, it even has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. But an industry that strips away the reproductive potential from a slow-growing species poses clear problems from a conservation perspective. In Russia, sturgeon are under threat from illegal fishing.
It has taken years, but the government is drafting legislation to regulate sturgeon fisheries and prosecute poachers. The proposal would allow for some private sector involvement, but all aspects of fish rearing and harvesting would fall under governmental control.
Caviar from the Caspian Sea ends up across the world, sitting atop canapes and on the tables of gourmands. Various sturgeon species yield roe of differing quality, with beluga being the most prized. The price lends caviar additional cachet as a luxury item, which boosts its appeal. Currently, Russian beluga caviar costs about $10,000 per kilogram in Moscow – but the same caviar will fetch nearly $20,000 in London. This inflated value makes roe appealling for entrepreneurial sorts – especially those who are willing to break laws. From criminals to corrupt officials, poaching offers big financial incentives.
Sturgeon spawn in rivers surrounding the Caspian Sea; along with Russia, caviar is also available in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Countries with a sturgeon fishery may consider caviar to be a traditional food. It can be difficult to persuade people to stop buying and eating it, as it is culturally significant. Russian doctors even prescribe it as a rich protein source. Despite the high price, Russians currently consume more than 1000 tonnes of caviar each year, with about 90% coming from poaching. But even a few years of low demand could help revitalize the population.
Hopefully, legislation will help reduce poaching pressure. However, while caviar remains a valuable and sought-after commodity, illegal fishing will exist. Perhaps additional enforcement at the fishery and export levels will be effective. Otherwise, future generations will not know the taste of roe or the impressive size of sturgeon. In Iran, severe poaching deterrents have been effective and there is little local caviar trade. But other countries are unlikely to impose the death penalty for illegal fishing.