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High Class Products and the Threat of Decline: Sturgeon

by Nikolai Nikitenko March 15, 2016

High Class Products and the Threat of Decline: Sturgeon

Two weeks ago I spoke of the difference between farmed and wild salmon, and more deeply into the difference between the salmon variants. This week I would like to talk about a similar subject, but one that goes into a completely different direction. Often when I post something about our black caviar I get allot of responses from people of how I am full of it and specifically, how sturgeon is only found in the Caspian Sea and everything else is a lie. I would like to address how absolutely incorrect that statement is and talk about black caviar throughout the world and how the industry has been drastically forced to change in the last two decades.
Like salmon allot of people have the predisposition that there is only one sturgeon and everything else is dyed pike roe. That idea is absolutely wrong! There are currently 25 species of sturgeon in existence in the world. This does not even count fish that are genetically related to sturgeon. Of those 25, only about a handful thrive in the Caspian Sea. That includes the Beluga, Russian Sturgeon, Fringebarbel Sturgeon, Persian Sturgeon and Sevruga. All other species can be found in Russian rivers, lakes in Central Asia (i.e. Kazakhstan), China, Western Europe, and even in the United States and Canada. Each Sturgeon variety has a different look, different quality meat and a unique flavor of caviar. All sturgeon have very thick skin and have cartilage structures instead of bone.
Now even though there are many sturgeons throughout the world that does not make all black caviar true sturgeon caviar. There is a massive demand for black caviar and often the result is the creation of imitation or fake products. It also leads to the seeking of fish that produce a black roe, which often end up being cheaper. I have often seen the eyes of people widen when they see a plate of sushi roll by on a conveyor belt with some black caviar on top. Thinking how fancy this looks they grab it and gobble down the $2 plate of rolls and roe, not knowing someone has toyed with them and they in fact have eaten flying fish roe that has been dyed black. Though entertaining, I do find it unfortunate that some poor soul is fooled to believe that a $10 jar of lumpfish caviar is the real stuff, buys it, and brings it home to be revolted by the sandy grittiness of this over salted garbage.
Thus as a result for the rest of their lives they will turn in disgust even when offered something so majestic as White Sturgeon Caviar. Just as there is an industry of making fake Gucci purses, there lives a strong industry for fake black caviar. Now not all non-sturgeon black caviars are bad. Bowfin caviar (if the weather, temperature, runoff and alignment of the planets is right on) can be a decent caviar. Paddlefish, which is a genetic cousin of the sturgeon, is great caviar! So even as that rule does not apply 100%, it is still smart to be vigilant on what you are buying. I have seen many delis sell the standard blue tin with the sturgeon on it and label the product only as “black caviar”. Yet when you buy it and open it, you quickly discover that you have purchased dyed pike roe, are out $40 and have lost your dignity.
The last point of the day is the comparison of farmed vs. wild sturgeon. Many people see on our site that our higher end sturgeon is farmed and then turn away in disgust in hopes of finding it wild. Sadly that is never going to happen at this point. The majority of sturgeon throughout the world has been banned from wild harvest. This includes Beluga and Sevruga. Though some nations like Iran ignore the call for the end of the wild harvest, most have agreed to the CITES regulations. This has also led to the all around ban of import for some sturgeon species.
For example, it is illegal to bring Beluga Sturgeon into the United States, regardless of whether it has been farm raised or wild caught. The reason behind this is that for many years there has been a very lax control on sturgeon fishing. The result was that a large network of poachers had accumulated to get in on the money that sturgeon caviar can produce. In recent years the poaching has been so bad that in nations like Russia, the wild catch of Sturgeon has been completely banned, and poaching has been given a heavy penalty of law. But even with 20-30 years in prison hanging on them if caught, the poachers still continue to operate. The result is the great possibility of the extinction of multiple sturgeon species, including Beluga and Sevruga.
As a result of the fall of the wild sturgeon stock, farms have been opened for two goals. Produce a sustainable stock for sturgeons and to produce a high quality sturgeon product. These farms operate differently than other aquaculture facilities. Unlike most that produce for the maximum yield, these facilities operate for sustainability and a strong population. Today one of the only wild catches of sturgeon in the world is located in the United States for Shovelnose Sturgeon (aka Hackleback Sturgeon).
Some Sturgeon species exist in the wild that still have a very healthy stock. For example White Sturgeon in the Columbia River and around Washington and Oregon State have a strong population, and for posterity sake any commercial harvesting has been closed off. Only a limited amount of White Sturgeon is open for sports fishing, and of those, only a certain size and age is permitted to be taken out of the water. Today many organizations and farms throughout the world exist with the goal of raising Sturgeon. Farms produce Beluga, Kaluga, Sevruga, Siberian Sturgeon, Adriatic Sturgeon, White Sturgeon and others for the sake of conservation and production. The hope for all of us is to one day turn the tide on illegal harvesting and poaching and get the wild population of Sturgeon back to healthy numbers. Hopefully with stricter control of the region and with international support, we can divert an ecological disaster.
Sturgeons have been around for hundreds of millions of years. With fossil evidence we can see that they were around during the time of the dinosaurs. Today they have become a regional symbol for the areas in which they live and a major industry. Many sturgeon species exist today, but that can change very quickly. With the production of Sturgeon farms we can hopefully turn the tide of disaster for these magnificent fish.




Nikolai Nikitenko
Nikolai Nikitenko

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