Despite the uncertainties of the census of its total population and sustainability studies when harvested in a larger commercial scale, is lumpfish roe caviar truly pass muster as sustainably-harvested caviar?
By: Ringo Bones
When tenured zoologists keeping tabs on the declining population of the beluga sturgeon and related sturgeon species in the Caspian Sea region finally sounded the alarm during the latter half of the 1990s that we might be driving these sturgeon species to extinction via uncontrolled caviar harvesting, the search for more plentiful roe from species that can sustainably harvested slowly over the years became an industry of its own. Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st Century, the beluga caviar substitute industry has started to boom thanks to caviar connoisseurs conscientious enough to forgo consuming the endangered species of sturgeon caviar to allow the species to sustainably recover back to commercially sustainable population levels. But do some sturgeon roe caviar substitutes – like lumpfish roe caviar – really pass muster as a more sustainable substitute for beluga sturgeon sourced caviar and related species?
Lumpfish – also known as lumpsucker – is a generic term for the small scorpaeniform marine fish of the family Cyclopteridae. The most well-known of which is the smooth lumpsucker or lumpfish whose scientific name is Aptoyelus ventricosus. Lumpfish are one of the oddest looking fishes that are currently commercially harvested – think Slimer from Ghostbusters. These fish don’t have gas bladders and are found primarily between the continental shelf and continental slope regions at depths between 100 to 1,700 meters.
From a zoological perspective, lumpfish - or lumpsuckers - are a poorly studied group of fishes. In which still very little is known of their behavior, biology and total population - which is the primary reason why most major fisheries regulatory bodies are still reluctant to give the green light for a much increased commercial harvesting of lumpfish or lumpsucker roe as a beluga caviar substitute.
As far as ichthyologists currently know, at least some species – like the smooth lumpfish – are known to travel great distances in order to spawn in shallow intertidal waters during the months of December to June. The male of the species are known to guard the brood of spherical eggs. The egg mass comprising of thousands of individual roes clumps together in adhesive packets which will break open when the eggs are ready to hatch. Very young lumpfish typically stay in shallow waters until they are fully developed, making them easy prey for predators.
Lumpfish have evolved one interesting trait. Their pelvic fins are sticky – which means that the fish can use their sticky fins to “velcro” themselves to hard rocky surfaces. Since they are bottom dwellers, this trait can be quite when they anchor themselves as they wait for a passing meal.
Lumpfish roe is now commonly sold as a beluga caviar alternative. But hardcore caviar connoisseurs often see red over the lumpfish roe caviar industry because some unscrupulous dealers often sold lumpfish roe as genuine true-blue beluga caviar or true sturgeon roe to unseasoned buyers given that its texture can easily fool novice and “first-time” caviar connoisseurs.
While the more well-heeled caviar snobs often look down their noses at lumpsucker roe or lumpfish roe caviar, it can be quite good when it is prepared in a proper way. If lumpfish roe is prepared properly – and carefully – it will have its own unique and distinct effervescing feel in one’s mouth – i.e. each roe bursting open in response to the gentle pressure of one’s teeth. Preparation-wise, lumpfish roe caviar is more unforgiving if improperly handled and prepared in comparison to its classier Caspian Sea sturgeon sourced cousins. Lightly salted or malossol lumpfish roe caviar can be used like beluga sturgeon sourced caviar to accompany various appetizers, and also be added to pasta sauces and spreads, as well as main dishes like omelettes.
Lumpfish roe comes in a range of colors. Most of the lumpfish roe sold commercially is dyed to be either red or black. If one is fortunate enough to find lumpfish roe caviar that is not artificially dyed, it can really make for an unusual appetizer as the roes naturally have that iridescent mother-of-pearl in color. Improperly handled lumpfish roe – like improperly handled sturgeon roe – for caviar use can truly have atrociously-tasting results. If you happen to purchase lumpfish roe caviar with an oily texture and a fishy smell – return it immediately to the retailer and demand a refund.