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Society & Culture

Caviar: A Dying Luxury?

January 20, 2015
Mansoureh Farahani
6 min read
Iranian caviar packed at a facility in Bandar-e Anzali, Iran
Iranian caviar packed at a facility in Bandar-e Anzali, Iran
Fishermen, Bandar-e Anzali
Fishermen, Bandar-e Anzali
Fishermen, Caspian Sea
Fishermen, Caspian Sea
Not long after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the USSR collapsed, making caviar fishing overly bureaucratic
Not long after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the USSR collapsed, making caviar fishing overly bureaucratic
Caviar Bar, Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg
Caviar Bar, Grand Hotel Europe, St Petersburg

Sohrab returns back to shore empty handed. He has just been out on the Caspian Sea in his fishing boat, but his hopes were dashed: he was unable to catch much while he was out.

It is the height of the sturgeon season, but he caught only one today. He looks back on the fishing trips of his youth, when catches were plentiful.

The Caspian Sea is the main source of caviar, the most expensive luxury food in the world. The sea — more accurately described as the world’s largest lake — is home to 90 percent of the world’s sturgeon, producing the five types of caviar most in demand. And, according to the Guinness World Record website, the most expensive caviar comes from the Iranian Beluga fish, found in the southern part of the Caspian.

But sturgeons are increasingly becoming an endangered species. Due to environmental pollution, overfishing, poaching, damming and the destruction of natural watercourses and habitats, the sturgeon population is falling dramatically. According to one study, Iran’s sturgeon population has decreased by 90 per cent in recent years. Reports indicate that poaching activity in the Caspian Sea is 10 to 12 times more common than the legal fishing in the region. River pollution in Russia also has a knock-on effect for Iran: Russia’s Kura River is now so polluted that it means the Tajan, Gorgan and Sifid Rud rivers in Iran are no longer suitable for spawning.

“Many people in my city [Torkaman in northern Iran) are working in the fishing industry, which means our incomes and lives depend on fishing.” says 48-year-old Iranian fisherman Sohrab, who has worked his whole life in the fishing and caviar industry.

One of the fishermen from Sohrab’s boat has to stay up all night to guard their nets from poachers. It is clear that poaching is having a direct affect on the lives of Iranian fishermen and their families.

Almas caviar, which comes from the Iranian Beluga fish, is, according to Guinness World Records, the “most expensive food in he world: 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) of the caviar, also referred to as  'black gold,” is sold for about $34,500. Almas is produced from the eggs of a rare albino sturgeon aged between 60-100 years old. Other types of caviar, taken from other species of sturgeon, are found in the Iranian Caspian, and also command high prices.

Geopolitics has also played an important role in the demise of sturgeon across the region: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 had a negative impact on the management of fisheries in the Caspian Sea. Before the collapse, the matter was between only two countries (the USSR and Iran). Now five nations are involved, making the industry overly bureaucratic and complicated, and often plagued by diplomatic rifts. The economic situation in the new independent republics has led to increased cases of poaching and coastal erosion, causing serious damage to the Caspian fishery resources generally, and the sturgeon population in particular.

“Poachers do not release baby sturgeons, even though they are not able to produce caviar, which causes more damage”, Sohrab says.

The most sought after caviar is Beluga (Huso Huso), followed by the Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus), Russian sturgeon (A. gueldenstaedtii), Ship (A. nudiventris), and Sevruga (A. Stellatus), respectively.

Although the Sevruga caviar is the most common luxury caviar, it is the most inexpensive and smallest amongst the main types of caviar-producing §§s, which also produce the smallest size of roes or eggs.

Beluga caviar, consisting of roe (or eggs) of the Beluga sturgeon with a color range varying from black to light gray, is the most expensive. This, the largest growing sturgeon species, can live for over 100 years, reaching maturity between 14 and 17 years of age. It has been reported to grow 10 meters long and weigh up to 1500 kilograms.

The Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus) caviar, which holds second place in regards to quality and price amongst the other species, is found in the southern Caspian region along the Iranian coast. It is listed as critically endangered.

The Russian sturgeon (A. gueldenstaedtii) is quite similar to the Persian sturgeon, but a bit smaller. Although the Russian sturgeon is native to the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, it is mostly commonly found in the Caspian.

The Ship sturgeon (A. nudiventris) is an anadromous fish, living in the brackish waters of the Caspian Sea and only moving to fresh water — the Sifid Rud in Iran, the Rioni River in Georgia and the Ural River in Russia and Kazakhstan — for spawning.

Generally, the caviar that comes from the Persian sturgeon, the Russian sturgeon and the Ship sturgeon are known by the trade name Ossetra, while the trade names for caviar Beluga and Sevruga bear the name from the fish species.

The freshest and highest quality caviar is harvested from live female sturgeons. Therefore, fish that tend to live a long natural lie die when their roes (eggs) are forcibly removed.

Regardless of pressure from international communities, after the collapse of the Soviet State, there has been no international agreement on the regulation of sturgeon harvesting among the five countries — Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan — bordering the Caspian Sea, except the agreement which was introduced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2010. Although the agreement limits the commercial harvest of sturgeon in the Caspian basin for five years, it will not be enough to stop illegal fishing activities. On the whole, it is not considered to be a successful and effective plan. As a result, there has been no practical and sufficient management system for the past two decades.

The most valuable sturgeon species inhabit the southern part of the Caspian Sea (the part of the Caspian that falls under Iranian territory). They are critically endangered. Because of a lack of effective control and surveillance of fishing activities, sturgeon poaching has been taking place in the basin. According to Iranian MP Mohammad Damadi, “despite a ban on exporting and harvesting caviar, illegal harvesting is going on [In Iran’s waters] and caviar is exported illegally to the US and Europe.”

There is fear among experts and local fishermen around the Caspian Sea that if the process of overfishing, damming and pollution continues, the sea will soon be completely empty of sturgeons. Therefore, the practice of eating caviar will not last much longer. Experts have raised serious concerns about the risk of extinction in just 15 years. If this happens, this generation will be the last to enjoy caviar.

“My father was a caviar fisherman and I would like my son to be one as well, but I don’t think it will happen,” says Sohrab. “It seems [the profession] is already over. There is nothing left in the sea.”

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