Caspian Sea Sturgeon Threat of Decline
The Decline of Sturgeon
Sturgeons are an ancient fish that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. They are famous throughout history for their size and (unfortunately for them) for the delicious caviar they produce. For centuries, sturgeon caviar has been a prized commodity that upper class individuals use to flaunt their wealth at social gatherings, but can we still consume sturgeon caviar knowing it may contribute to their steep population declines? Here are the facts you need to know about this prized delicacy so that you can make an informed decision.
What Are Sturgeons?
Before we get into the debate surrounding sturgeons and caviar, it’s important to start at the beginning with classification. Sturgeons are an ancient fish tracing back to the Triassic period (245-208 million years ago). They are similar to sharks in that their physiology remains relatively unchanged from that of their ancient ancestors. They and are easily recognizable by their long, scaleless body with five bony armor plates and four barbels—thin sensory organs seen in front of their toothless mouths.
Sturgeons are a type of anadromous fish, meaning that they travel upstream when it is time to spawn. They are also slow to mature, which is part of the reason overfishing is such a common problem. For most sturgeons, their first spawn does not occur until they are around 15-20 years old, so it can take a long time for sturgeon populations to replenish in areas where overfishing has occurred.
What Do Sturgeon Eat?
Most sturgeons are bottom feeders, meaning they subsist mostly on a diet of shells, crustaceans, and small fish. Unfortunately, this makes them extremely susceptible to the effects of pollution as they need nutrient-rich water in order to survive. White sturgeon and pallid sturgeon are different as they age out of being benthic feeders. Once they reach adulthood, they begin to feed on other fish instead of relying on crustaceans for food.
How Long Do Sturgeon Live?
While the average lifespan and size will vary depending on the type, beluga (sturgeon) tend to grow the largest and live the longest. Since sturgeon do not die after spawning like salmon, they have been reported to live for more than 100 years while growing throughout their long life.
In fact, the largest sturgeon ever caught was a beluga female in 1827 weighing in at 3,463 pounds and with a length of 24 feet. Considering how slow maturing these fish are, it’s mind-boggling to imagine how old this beluga female must have been. That’s only the biggest sturgeon ever caught since we started keeping track too. Can you imagine how large sturgeon must have grown to be during the Triassic period when fishing and pollution weren’t a factor?
Sturgeons are the most critically endangered
Mostly due to the high demand for sturgeon caviar, many species of sturgeon have recently been classified as threatened or critically endangered with a few species even being driven into extinction already. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has stated that sturgeons are the most critically endangered out of any other animal species, with over 85% of sturgeon species classified as being at risk of extinction.
Overfishing, destruction of habitats, the building of dams, and poaching have led to an estimated decline of around 70% in the sturgeon population worldwide over the last century. Most notably, Black Sea sturgeon (beluga) are already on the verge of extinction because of beluga sturgeon caviar being of such high-quality. Poaching of Caspian Sea sturgeon alone has been 10-12 times over legal limits due to their caviar being known as the food of kings and tsars.
Can You eat Sturgeon?
While sturgeon is an edible fish, there is an ethics problem around consuming sturgeon. The decline of sturgeon due to their caviar still extends to the fish itself and purchasing wild caught sturgeon continues to contribute to their overall decline. This is a large reason why even heavily populated varieties, such as the Columbia River sturgeon, are no longer available for commercial fishing.
If you’re worried about the effects of consuming sturgeon, consider using farm raised salmon for a more sustainable, fatty fish.
Farming Versus Wild Caught
The harvesting of wild caviar is becoming less and less popular due to its contribution to the decline of sturgeon populations. However, when it is done it involves catching a mature female before she migrates upstream to spawn. Once they make their catch, the fisherman will slice through her belly so that they can remove the eggs and sell the leftover fish for meat.
Unfortunately, killing the female sturgeon is always necessary when harvesting caviar in the wild as the eggs begin deteriorating as soon as she begins to spawn to allow for better fertilization. This makes timing crucial to collecting a high-quality harvest. It also means that you cannot wait for the female sturgeon to lay her eggs for you to harvest as the quality will be too poor for marketability.
Of course, if you have your heart set on consuming sturgeon black caviar, not all hope is lost! Recent breakthroughs in sturgeon conservation have led to a new way of harvesting sturgeon roe that does not involve killing the fish. Sturgeon farms have found a way to chemically induce labor in mature female sturgeons so that the roe can be gently massaged out of them without having to cut them open. This process can be done every 15 months, making this a much more sustainable option for sturgeon caviar producers.
It’s important to understand, that buying farmed caviar does not mean that the caviar is of lesser quality even if the farmed sturgeon caviar price is lower than wild caught. There tends to be a stigma around farm raised fish that also affects people’s perception of farmed caviar. However, farming caviar creates a much more sustainable way for you to enjoy black caviar without contributing to the decline in the sturgeon population.
The Caviar Controversy
Caviar in general tends to be a bit of a controversial subject. Issues with sustainability have led to many a heated debate as people try to decide whether we can ethically continue harvesting and consuming caviar at such a rapid rate. However, as mentioned above, caviar doesn’t have to hurt the environment as long as you are careful about your sources. Breakthroughs in sturgeon farming techniques and our new ability to harvest sturgeon caviar without killing the fish is helping to fill the gap in the caviar market.
Unfortunately, due to the rarity of wild caught Russian sturgeon caviar, a black market has risen to illegally sell poached sturgeon caviar. This can easily be contributed to the mistaken belief that wild-caught is better than farmed, but it dramatically hurts all of the efforts being made toward wild sturgeon conservation. You can help fight this by doing your research so that you know what types of caviar are the most sustainable and what types are not, and making sure that you are only buying from reputable caviar dealers.
Types Of Sturgeon Caviar
There is a wide variety of sturgeon caviar out there, as well as a lot of imitators (some good, some bad) which makes it important to know the difference.
Kaluga Sturgeon Caviar
Kaluga caviar (sometimes called “River Beluga”) is the most popular replacement to beluga and European sea sturgeon caviars. Due to poaching for their valuable roe, Kaluga sturgeon is now considered to be critically endangered, meaning the only way to obtain Kaluga caviar is through the farm raised variety. The Kaluga sturgeon caviar price tends to stay fairly high due to its rare status, however it is the closest in taste and texture that you can get to Beluga caviar.
White Sturgeon Caviar
White sturgeons are found in the wild mostly in Oregon and Washington, although they can be found along the entire American west coast. While they are pretty heavily populated throughout the Pacific Northwest, American white sturgeon caviar is now being supplied almost exclusively through farms with commercial fishing being prohibited in the Columbia River and Northwest region to help preserve the population.
Due to the high demand for sustainable caviar, California white sturgeon caviar farms in particular have increased in popularity and are now reported to supply 70-80% of U.S. production alone.
Paddlefish Caviar vs Sturgeon
Often mistaken for sturgeon caviar and technically considered an “imitation caviar”, paddlefish caviar can be a great substitution. They are a genetic cousin of the sturgeon so their roe can come across as being very similar in taste and texture to the widely prized Siberian sturgeon caviar. Unfortunately, this similarity has led many shady caviar dealers to try to pass it off as sturgeon caviar by vaguely referring to it only as “black caviar”.
Don’t let these shady dealers scare you away from Paddlefish caviar, though! As long as you are aware of what you are buying, Paddlefish caviar can be an excellent alternative to American sturgeon caviar for even picky consumers. It offers a similar buttery taste but tends to be more affordable and more sustainable than sturgeon,