Monday, April 19, 2010

Will A Harvesting and Fishing Moratorium Save the Beluga Caviar?

In the past, harvesting and hunting moratoriums have saved a good number of species from the brink of extinction. Will a well-enforced one eventually save the beluga sturgeon?

By: Ringo Bones

In a Time magazine interview back in 2003, Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and a spokeswoman for a surgeon-hugging coalition that calls itself Caviar Emptor said that: “People are going to have to live without beluga caviar for a while if we are going to have any hope of rescuing the species”. Fortunately, a good number of species of this planet which are formerly on the very brink of extinction had been saved via a well-enforced moratorium when it comes to their harvesting and hunting. But will a well-enforced moratorium on beluga caviar harvesting and / or fishing, trade and consumption – given the difficulty of enforcing it due to relative lawlessness of the Caspian Sea region – be enough to save the beluga sturgeon from eventual extinction?

Even though Americans swallow as much as 80% of the world’s production of beluga caviar, US-based environmental groups have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service as far back as the late 1990s to put Russian and Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon on the endangered species list. CITES – the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of flora and fauna – had also since recognized the precarious position of the beluga sturgeon as a species as far back as 1997. Both moves would undoubtedly affect the global consumption beluga caviar that had gained ever-increasing popularity in the post-Cold War era Capitalist West due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union and intensified globalization.

It is not only the increasing demand that’s driving the price – and thus hastening the extinction – of beluga caviar. Acipenser husso – the scientific name of the Caspian Sea sourced Russian beluga sturgeon that is the source of beluga caviar – in other words, the world’s best caviar – are under enormous pressure for sometime now. From overfishing, intensified dam construction during the past 50 years and not to mention pollution caused by the former Soviet republics and other nation-states that use the Caspian Sea as a free sewage system. Worse still, most species of sturgeon are in decline – some types by as much as 90% - and those native to the Caspian Sea are especially doomed unless steps are taken to replenish fish stocks. Like the establishment of beluga sturgeon hatcheries and a well-enforced moratorium on the fishing and harvesting of beluga caviar, not to mention the establishment of an effective clean-up program of the increasingly polluted Caspian Sea and its tributaries.

One aspect of the problem of restoring the beluga sturgeon population is of the nature of the beast itself. Chondrosteans – the class in which sturgeons and its relatives like the paddlefish belong – dates back to more than 400 million years ago around the Devonian Period. Are lucky just to be around today due to the stiff competition that they faced in the name of more “evolved” classes of fish during the reign of the dinosaurs. Clad in bony plates, sturgeons are fierce looking and some can even grow to enormous lengths – up to 6 meters from snout to tail and can easily weigh more than a ton.

Unfortunately, sturgeons mature slowly and some don’t begin reproducing until they are 15 to 25 years old. Worst still, when a female Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon does start ovulating and starts producing more than a million eggs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US, the result of her fecundity usually results in a death sentence via caviar harvesting. Which can be a very wasteful way to eat Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon via caviar. The carcasses of the mature female sturgeon are seldom – if ever – eaten once the roe is harvested for caviar processing. If you ask me, it is about as wasteful as consuming shark fin soup.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kootenai Sturgeon Conservation: A Model for Saving the Beluga Caviar?

As one of the success stories of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s species conservation program, will the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon restocking program be used to save the beluga caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

Unlike that of the beluga sturgeon’s home waters where the fish has to contend with the threat of pollution and overfishing, the white sturgeon - scientific name: Acipenser transmontanus - in the continental United States has only faced one major threat during the past 40 years. Namely the extensive dam construction of its river ecosystem. Since the construction of the Libby Dam a little over 40 years ago the white sturgeon’s natural habitat had been slowly – but drastically altered – during the past decades. The Libby Dam held back the vital spring floods that cleared the silt accumulation in the Kootenai River, depriving the white sturgeon of its ideal spawning conditions. Hence the slow but inevitable decline of the species.

Enter the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program in the state of Idaho. Listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as one of their success stories when it comes to species conservation drastically affected by changes in its ecosystem. Back in September 6, 1994 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service as placed the Kootenai River white sturgeon in their endangered species list, the Kootenai Tribe had already initiated the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Study and Conservation Aquaculture Project four years before. Part of the Kootenai Tribe’s program to save the white sturgeon was to preserve the genetic variability of the population when they started rebuilding the natural age class structure with hatchery-reared sturgeon, and prevent its extinction while measures are implemented to restore the natural production of the species.

Even though the program is an unqualified success, it looks like the Kootenai River white sturgeon are now dependent on human intervention – like the Kootenai Tribe’s sturgeon restocking program – due to the dam’s effects on the river ecosystem. But is this method viable when used to save the dwindling beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea region?

The Russian or beluga sturgeon – scientific name: Acipenser husso – has been heading to extinction not only ever since many caviar connoisseurs swear that it has the best caviar - hence the overfishing - but also of the extensive dam construction of its native river habitat and pollution. Consuming its eggs as a delicacy – from my perspective even though I indulge in it from time to time – is about as wasteful as fining sharks and throwing the carcasses overboard just for the shark fin soup. But given that sturgeon roe – especially beluga caviar – is a very lucrative commodity, wouldn’t it be better if we intervene through establishing a beluga sturgeon hatchery program to bring the numbers back up?

Given the success of the Kootenai Tribe’s restocking program, it does seem viable that using such methods, the number of beluga sturgeon could be increased to numbers that its survival as a species would not be threatened. Despite extensive commercial roe harvesting. But given that there are now very few Russian sturgeon or beluga sturgeon around, will this ever involve caviar-fishing / caviar harvesting moratorium like the one planned on blue-fin tuna by CITES this year?

Maybe a fishing moratorium will play a part in bring back up the beluga sturgeon population, but it will be very hard to enforce given that the Caspian Sea is surrounded by other nations beside Russia. Like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran. All of them have varying commercial interest in commercial caviar harvesting. Just imagine the red tape involved? And given that the various rivers in the Caspian Sea region that have served as a vital spawning ground for the beluga sturgeon, namely the Volga River, the Ural River and Kur River are now full of dams. Human intervention in the form of fish hatcheries – similar to that in the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program - might be a necessity in order to keep the beluga sturgeon from going the way of the dodo.

Even the writing team in the world of Star Trek were optimistic enough to foresee through conjecture that beluga caviar had survived well into the 24th Century. Like the fictionalized account of an episode in Star Trek: the Next Generation where Captain Jean-Luc Picard served beluga caviar to a visiting high-ranking Klingon official. Is this reason enough to be hopeful over the long-term future of the beluga caviar?

Borax: An Unhealthy Caviar Additive?

Mostly used by Iranian producers of beluga caviar, does borax really pose as a health threat – especially kidney damage - when used as a food preservative in caviar packaging?

By: Ringo Bones

An overwhelming majority of caviar purists – make that beluga caviar purists – say that pasteurization ruins the taste of caviar despite of a guaranteed sanitation and extended shelf-life of the finished product. I mean pasteurization is used supposedly to perform partial sterilization of a substance – in this case caviar – at a temperature that destroys objectionable microorganisms – especially those that causes food spoilage and food poisoning - without major chemical alteration of the substance. Sadly for us caviar connoisseurs, the words ”without major chemical alteration of the substance” has enough of an effect to alter the taste of pasteurized beluga caviar. If pasteurization just won’t do, then what is the alternative?

Iranian caviar manufacturers have over the years resorted to borax – which had become their signature process – as a way to guarantee the extended shelf-life of processed caviar without the negative effects, when it comes to taste, of pasteurization. Borax is a hydrated sodium borate, often used as a cleaning agent and as a flux in soldering and welding, it is also used as a preservative. Borax - from my tongue's perspective - has a slight bitter taste, but at quantities used by Iranian caviar producers, it is far below the taste threshold of the most finicky caviar connoisseur. But is this quantity small enough not to damage the kidneys of you typical caviar connoisseur?

Iranian caviar producers add borax to the salt mix supposedly to give their caviar a “softer and sweeter finish”. Unfortunately, borax is considered an illegal food additive in the United States due to its suspected negative effects to the human kidneys. But Iranian caviar producers swear that the quantities of borax that they add to their caviar are far below the health risk threshold established by the US Environmental Protection Agency when it comes to borax ingestion. Due to the lucrative nature of the caviar trade in the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently changed its policy on adding borax to caviar. Seems like profits trumps health concerns.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Caviar…By Any Other Name?

Prior to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling, can any fish roe be called – and even sold as – caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

Believe it or not, there was a time in the history of the commercial caviar trade when any fish roe that can be colored black could be called caviar – this was before 1966. This lax law ended during 1966 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined the product, and established rules for labeling. Traditionally, caviar has always been defined as any processed salted roe – i.e. the eggs of fish especially when still enclosed in the ovarian membrane – typically of sturgeon or other large fish prepared as an appetizer.

The best ones are made from female beluga sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea region. And the ultimate ones are from beluga sturgeon eggs that are caught and processed in the Volga River delta region – famous for being the ancestral home of beluga caviar. Caviar is not only characterized by the fish species from which it is obtained, but also classified based on the size, color, fragrance, flavor, uniformity, and consistency of the berry, as well as the glean, firmness, and vulnerability of the roe skin. Currently, there are three types of caviar that can still be harvested with commercial viability despite of the sturgeon’s decline as a species during much of the 20th Century due to over-fishing and the widespread pollution and damming of its natural habitat.

Beluga caviar is the most well-known type and it is sourced from the beluga sturgeon, a strong nomadic fish and is the largest of the sturgeon family, averaging 4 meters in length and weighing over 1,000 kg. It is now very rare, and only about 120 or fewer fish are caught annually. The roe in a beluga sturgeon can equal 15% of its body weight, and it varies in color from gray to dark gray. The largest of the three types, beluga roe has a fine, delicate skin, considerable texture, and visible “eye” on target in the middle of each egg or “berry”.

Osetra – sometimes spelled as oscetra / ossetra – caviar is more abundant than the beluga caviar – although the Caspian osetra sturgeon – like the beluga sturgeon – is currently facing imminent extinction unless concerted steps are taken to clean up and revitalize its natural habitat. Taken from the oscetra sturgeon / osetra sturgeon, the fish is a medium sized sturgeon measuring 2 meters long and weighs up to 200kg. Being a bottom-feeder, this type of sturgeon uses its elongated snout to vacuum aquatic plants and small sea life up from the seabed. Oscetra roe varies in color from dark brown to gray with golden shading with a fine layered surface. The oscetra roe have a unique taste of hazelnut – which I really much adore – that made its adherents declare it as the finest type of caviar.

Sevruga caviar is taken from the sevruga sturgeon – the smallest of the sturgeon family. Measuring only 1.5 meters long and weighing up to 25kg. Its small upward pointing snout and a distinct diamond-shaped exoskeletal plate is the distinguishing characteristic of this particular sturgeon. Sevruga roe has a fine surface texture and their color ranges from light to dark gray. Sevruga roes are small and they are popular due to their characteristic taste and smell. As the most abundant of the three still commercially fished types of caviar, it is also the least expensive type, thus making it very popular.

Another type of caviar worth mentioning though is the one that is taken from the sterlet sturgeon, as this variety was once extremely popular with the czars of Russia. Its small-grained golden caviar was once considered the finest available. However, the sterlet sturgeon was over-fished to the point of virtual extinction that it became commercially extinct way before caviar gained a notorious status as a sign of Western conspicuous consumption. Though sightings of sterlet sturgeon had been on the rise during the last few years.

So there you have it, the major types of caviar that passed muster in the 1966 U.S. Food and Drug Administration criteria as true blue caviar. Let’s just hope that there will be a concerted effort by the international community to prevent this fine delicacy from going the way of the dodo - or the shark due to unsustainable harvest of sharks for shark-fin soup. With conspicuous consumption comes consumer responsibility.

Does Caviar Consumption Have Pre-Czarist Russia Origins?

Historically, it was commonly believed that the czars and czarinas of Russia made caviar consumption famous, but does this prized delicacy have much earlier origins?

By: Ringo Bones

An overwhelming number of books about the history of caviar consumption usually begin with the czars and czarinas of Russia – in the 19th Century. While there are no surviving / credible historical documents on whether the Romanovs – believed to be of German or Prussian-Lithuanian Stock – already started the caviar consumption craze when they first came to Russia in the late 13th Century.

The earliest documentation on the origins of caviar has always been shrouded in history, although references to caviar in literature and art date back almost as far as the 400 million-year-old history of the sturgeon itself. It has been suggested that by 2,400 BC, ancient coast-hugging Egyptians and Phoenicians had learned to salt and pickle fish eggs to make them last through war, famine or long sea-crossing voyages. Facts supporting that the ancient Egyptians knew about caviar can be seen at the bas-reliefs at Necropolis near the Sakkara Pyramids that portray fisherman catching fish and removing their eggs.

The ancient Greeks – like the ancient Egyptians centuries before - were no strangers to caviar. According to some of the more esoteric writings of Aristotle, lavish Greek banquets usually end with a brass horn section fanfare announcing the arrival of heaping platters of caviar garnished with flowers. Unfortunately, the story of Greek caviar consumption must be reconstructed – not from credible historic documentation itself – but from philosophical and theoretical sources. Hence making Aristotle’s account of caviar consumption in ancient Greece rather fragmentary.

On caviar’s Oriental origins, some scholars’ claim that it was the Turkish who first coined the word “khavyar” from which the English term caviar originates. While others suggest that the term caviar has a Persian origin – “chav-jar” – which translates loosely as “cake of power” or “piece of power” due to the Persians’ widespread belief in the curative and strength-giving properties of caviar. The first written record of the word “khavyar” dates back to the 1240s from the writings of Batu Khan - Genghis Khan’s grandson - long before the word first appeared in English print in 1591.

Before being well documented in Europe, caviar consumption probably started there during the Middle Ages. Although not known for the qualitative aspect of their culinary tastes, Medieval English society considers sturgeon-sourced caviar as haute cuisine. King Edward II proclaimed the sturgeon as a “royal fish” and made a decree that all sturgeon caught in England belonged to the imperial treasury and must be surrendered to the monarch or gentry.

During the Middle Ages, many countries’ sovereigns had claimed exclusive sturgeon and caviar rights. In Russia, China, Denmark, and France, as well as England, most prevailing laws states that: “fishermen had to offer the catch to the sovereign”, often for fixed rewards. While in Russia and Hungary, the sections of rivers considered suitable for fishing the great sturgeon – the beluga, as we know it – were subject to special royal grants. Later on, the Francophone Larousse Gastronomique Cites la Dictionnaire du Commerce mentioned the dish as well in 1741.

Before consuming beluga caviar become a symbol of the Western capitalist high life, only the Russian czars and czarinas were known with enough documentary certainty as the earliest connoisseurs of beluga caviar. As the main conniseurs of caviar in Russia, the czars levied a caviar tax on the sturgeon fishermen. It is said that fisherman subjects of Nicholas II gave him 11 tons of the finest caviar annually as tribute before he was dethroned during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The type of caviar Nicholas II so enjoyed – the small golden eggs of the sterlet sturgeon – were so popular with Russian nobility that the species are now considered “commercially extinct” today.