Has the egg finally cracked for caviar?

The caviar industry could be extinct in a decade, unless new methods of massaging and ultra scans save the sturgeon fish.

Josh Sims January 25, 2016

The hearse was powering along the highway in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia, when the local police pulled it over. A quick search of the vehicle however – including opening the coffin – revealed no body, much to the surprise of the driver. Rather, wrapped in plastic bags under funeral wreaths, the police found 500kg of caviar, valued at around $200,000. 

This incident, from 2015, points to how sturgeon roe retains its image as a luxury product. The wild variety – wild caviar is banned not just in Russia but internationally – has become a contraband to rival that of narcotics. Indeed, colloquially-known as ‘black gold’, four ounces of top-flight caviar is of comparable value to one ounce of the precious metal – with beluga costing around £100 per 50g, regardless of recessions. 

And perhaps there is little wonder as to why that aura has been retained. In 2010 beluga sturgeon, native to the Caspian Sea and among the most highly-prized of the many species, was classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a situation which has not improved since. It is not alone: a higher percentage of the 27 sturgeon species are designated critically endangered than any other species assessed by the organisation, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants. Scientists in Iran estimate that Caspian Sea sturgeon will be extinct in a decade. 

It would be an ignoble end for such an imposing creature. Sturgeon are one of the oldest species of fish in existence, sharing the seas at the time of the dinosaurs. Each fish can grow up to 4.5m long, with some living for 80 years or more, leading them to be called the Leviathan or Methuselah of freshwater fish.

But, with slow growth and reproductive rates, bounteous numbers of sturgeon are never going to be likely. And that is bad news for the fish ­– because the demand for those salty, unfertilised eggs that lie within sexually-mature females has almost killed it off. Poaching, as the hearse story suggests, is believed to still be widespread. The black market in caviar is thought to outstrip the annual $75m-plus legal trade by ten to one. 

And yet there is hope, from the unlikely combination of farming, ultra-sound and massage. Sturgeon farms now operate as far afield as Spain, California, China, France, Uruguay and Venice, with the Iranian government having offered interest-free lending and expertise to investors ready to open sturgeon farms in its ideal waters. With, as the saying goes, eight years to produce one kilo of caviar, eight months to get caviar from the fish and about eight seconds to eat a tin of it, much is being done by the industry to maximise production efficiency.

Indeed, the primary problem may be one of attitude. While so-called aqua-cultured sturgeon has long produced an inferior product, recent advances in methodology mean that is certainly no longer the case, such that most top chefs have now embraced it in their cooking. But that old image – that farmed is somehow less ‘real’ than wild sturgeon caviar – has been hard to shift.

“There is still a snobbery about wild vs farmed, though if you put an unmarked tin of each in front of people, they can’t tell the difference,” says Peter Rabeiz, managing director of caviar producer and retailer Caviar House & Prunier. “It’s the same problem for producers of any luxury food stuff, be it oysters or wine – there is a lack of knowledge that is abused. Some people will buy anything in a Russian-looking tin. When we have customers demanding beluga eggs the size of olives, we send them to the pizzeria.” 

Certainly more recent advances are producing roe of a kind that not only compares favourably in taste and texture with the wild variety – the former tends to be nuttier and creamier, the latter more sea-salty – but even produces what is known in the trade as the ‘Caspian pop’ in the mouth, a characteristic that softer, farmed roe had typically lost. This could prove crucial to curtail demand for the illegal wild variety. 

Yet what of the fish, farmed or not? Actually getting the eggs has typically meant killing the fish. But tech is helping here. Caviar House & Prunier is one of the companies to introduce ultrasound scanners, similar to those used to monitor human pregnancy, to better assess both the fish’s health and the ideal time for harvesting its eggs, while other systems employ implanted micro-chips. 

But the latest, patented approach, developed by a German company called Vivace, looks to nature to provide a genuine ‘no kill’ means of harvesting the roe, and that’s by massage, physically working the farmed fish much as it rubs itself up against rocks to trigger egg release in the wild, using a methodology that has been nine years in development.

“It’s basically about dealing with the fish in a way that keeps it in its most natural state, and extracting the eggs at the most critical time,” explains Keane, also Vivace’s co-founder with Angela Kohler, a pre-eminent marine biologist. “Certainly it’s still complex – some of the fish can be pretty big. And it’s not a new process – it’s been used all over the world with different animals. But nobody has thought to do it our way with sturgeon before.”

What is new is that Vivace has developed a means of stopping the chemical process that, delivered this way, prevents the eggs from coagulating on release into water, as they do in the wild. The result is a product that also has twice the shelf-life of previous caviar and, what’s more, although it is as yet unproven, is expected to be a financially sound model. Not only is the constant, expensive battle to replenish one’s farmed fish stock greatly reduced, but, in theory, since the eggs are captured in a way that is close to natural, the farmed fish are each encouraged to produce a greater volume of eggs year on year. 

Keane believes that the approach could be a “game changer” for the caviar industry, further encouraging a change in our perception of sturgeon roe: still exotic, still mystical, but more of an everyday indulgence that one might expect to see more often in restaurant dishes.

Until then, that very exoticism will mean that – among those who care little for the survival of the fish, or even of the species to which it belongs – demand for wild caviar will, sadly, likely remain, even if a hearse may never become the best means to transport it.