Over-harvesting has severely diminished world caviar supplies. An official moratorium on harvesting sturgeon is being systematically undermined by smugglers to the black market. While endangered species organisations attempt to combat illegal trade, innovative companies are seeking alternatives to traditional caviar from cheaper sources. Kate Ellerton reports.

Caviar is one of the world’s most luxurious foods and like anything special, supplies are limited. Unfortunately, fishermen in the Caspian Sea region that is the traditional home of the beleaguered beluga, which yields those ridiculously tasty fish roes, have been steadily killing of the geese that lay the golden eggs.

As a result, Russia has imposed an official moratorium on harvesting the three species of sturgeon that yield caviar, (beluga, the largest and most expensive, asetra and sevruga). However, even though neighbouring former Soviet republics are expected to follow suit and Iran is already observing tight controls, retailers and bottlers are unlikely to will not see the benefit of such moves until next year.

John Stas, Managing Director of British firm WG Whites told just-food.com:
“We will begin to see some kind of effect from the ban next year, if CITES decides the suspension of fishing has had a good effect.

“Prices won’t come down, but last year’s price increase nearly broke the camel’s back”

Prices won’t come down, but last year’s price increase nearly broke the camel’s back – it was nearly 70%.”

He added: “Traders just can’t put that kind of increase through to the customer. We’ve had to reduce our margin substantially, and we put our prices up by 25%. Contraband caviar is still being brought into the country. It’s not expensive if you go to Russia and buy it on the black market. There are still people willing to go there, buy 30 or 40 kilos, smuggle them in and sell them to retailers or direct to the public.”

The illegal catch in the four former Soviet republics on the Caspian, (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), is now ten or 12 times higher than the legal take. The legal caviar trade is estimated to be worth some US$100m annually. Because prices of illegal caviar vary widely from country to country, it is difficult to estimate the value of illegal trade, but according to CITES it is “enormous.”

Stas’s comments follow the agreement at a standing committee of CITES – the Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It instructed Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to take steps by the end of this year to:

  • Conduct a comprehensive survey of sturgeon stocks
  • Ask global police agency Interpol to analyse the illegal sturgeon trade
  • Request the CITES Secretariat, Interpol and the World Customs Organization to conduct a study of enforcement needs for combating illegal harvesting and trade permit and facilitate on-site inspections by CITES of their sturgeon management activities.
  • Agree on the coordinated management of their Caspian sturgeon resources, including the joint setting of catch and export quotas for 2002, that should be determined by the end of 2001.

Any failure on the part of these states to implement the agreement will result in them being refused quotas by the international conservation organisation for 2002. This is no idle threat, given that CITES’ rulings on quotas are – in theory – binding to those countries that have signed up to the agreement such as countries bordering Russia and the Caspian Sea, although contraband caviar harvesters cannot, of course, be expected to take much notice.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the existing fishing ban will bear fruit. This depends on how effectively the countries crack down on their poachers – and the success of a solid hatchery programme in which younger fish are put back in the sea to reach maturity.

Stas added: “We won’t feel the impact of the ban for some time. They have already caught the majority of what they would catch in a given year. They were allowed to catch until the end of June and that’s their peak season. They will not be catching the autumn catch but that’s far smaller than the spring catch.”

He added: “It is possible to farm sturgeon to produce good quality caviar – and farms in the low countries are doing just that – but it’s still in smaller quantities compared to the wild variety. The problem with releasing sturgeon into the Caspian Sea is that once you let them go you can’t control them and a lot get caught before they are mature,” he said.

Until 1991, two countries – the USSR and Iran – virtually controlled the caviar market, investing heavily in controlling and maintaining fish stocks. This made it easy to trace the source of any given shipment of caviar. With the demise of the USSR, however, the system collapsed, and many entrepreneurs dealing in “black gold” sprang up to the replace the state-owned companies.

The Caspian once accounted for 95% of world caviar, although this percentage is now closer to 90%. Official catch levels have fallen from a peak of about 30,000 tonnes in the late 1970’s to less than one tenth that figure in the late 1990s.

“Suppliers of alternatives to traditional caviar are thriving.”

Reduced river flow, the destruction of spawning sites, corruption, poaching, organized crime and illicit trade have all contributed to the decline.

Meanwhile suppliers of alternatives to traditional caviar are thriving. As well as using supplies from farms in the Netherlands and Belgium, lumpfish and salmon roe are being cited as possible alternatives. But the last two years have seen meteoric growth in the success of avruga, or herring roe.

Spanish company Pescaviar, based in Madrid, have been supplying this new replacement. Kate Hayward, the Press and Marketing Manager for one of the company’s traders, Land and Sea, said: “Avruga looks like caviar. It doesn’t taste exactly like it but it retails at 5% of the price of sevruga, the cheapest sturgeon roe. It has been an enormous success for us across Europe. People just can’t afford real caviar and we are getting one and two star EU Michelin chefs buying avruga.”

Hayward added: “We started back in April ’99 and year-on-year growth of avruga sales in the UK is around 150%. We brought avruga into this country. Two years ago nobody knew about it and now it’s in all the major supermarkets, and selected speciality food halls. It’s being used by all manner of caterers – from local pubs to two star Michelin chefs.”

By Kate Ellerton, just-food.com correspondent