November 17, 2005

Beluga Ban Boosts Domestic Caviar Farming

By Laura Zuckerman

HAGERMAN, Idaho -- After more than a decade growing in the spring waters of a commercial fish farm in southern Idaho, five dozen white sturgeon are ready to give eggs that will be marketed to U.S. caviar connoisseurs.

The timing could hardly be better.

A recent U.S. ban on beluga caviar from the Caspian and Black seas has sparked a boom for U.S. fish farms, which are stepping in to provide gourmet stores and high-end restaurants the much-loved salted eggs, or roe, from sturgeon.

"The bottom line is, the source of caviar in the future will be fish farms," said Joel Van Eenennaam, sturgeon specialist with the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis.

The assessment follows a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service September ban on Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon products from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in response to what the service says is their failure to protect the threatened species. The service last month also banned beluga imports from eastern European countries in the Black Sea basin.

Over the past two decades, a period of tumultuous change with the Soviet Union's collapse, the Caspian Sea sturgeon population has declined more than 90 percent, according to Caviar Emptor, a coalition of environmental groups.

The recent ban means that in the coming weeks record numbers of Americans gourmets may be trying the U.S. variety, which comes from white sturgeon, part of the same family but a different species from beluga in the Caspian Sea.

The period from November to New Year's Day accounts for roughly 80 percent of U.S. caviar sales.

The caviar from the farmed white sturgeon of Idaho and central California may not have the cachet of caviar harvested from beluga sturgeon. But its reputation is growing and it costs about a quarter of the price of beluga.

Mark Arnao, executive sous chef with Atelier, a four-star restaurant in New York's Ritz-Carlton hotel, said the caviar from farmed white sturgeon is good enough for the exclusive eatery. "The taste is really very good," he said.


Raising white sturgeon is hard work.

The white-bellied sturgeon in rectangular cement ponds, known as raceways, can grow as large as 180 pounds (82 kg). Leo Ray, one of the state's three caviar producers, said moving the 5- to 7-foot (1.5- to 2.1-meter) fish from one raceway to another is an arduous task that involves a stretcher and a two-man team.

Ray expects to harvest about 150 pounds (68 kg) of precious gray-black eggs from his farm-raised white sturgeon.

This is the first year that Idaho's caviar will enter the market, and its entire production already has been hooked by Dale Sherrow, co-owner of Seattle Caviar, which specializes in retail caviar and champagne sales.

"We believe the future of this business is very strong," Sherrow said of white sturgeon farms. "People are going to want all caviar all the time."

With an historical appetite of more than 50 tons per year, the United States has been the world's leading importer of beluga caviar. America ranks third in overall caviar imports after the European Union and Switzerland, but experts say illegal beluga trafficking blurs the true picture.

Sherrow says white sturgeon caviar from Idaho and California farms is similar to osetra, the caviar from one kind of Russian sturgeon.

But home-grown caviar is also cheaper. Idaho's caviar sells for $50 per ounce compared to top retail prices for beluga at $200 -- where it is available. Osetra prices rose from about $100 per ounce last year to $175 this season.

It has taken Idaho's three caviar producers more than a decade to taste some of the rewards of their labors. The sex of white sturgeon, North America's largest freshwater fish, can not be determined for five years. It takes the females at least another five years to produce eggs.

Each 100-pound (45-kg) female produces an average of 80,000 eggs, enough for about 40 ounces (1,135 grams) of caviar.

"We'll start small and grow slow, but I think Idaho could very easily end up being the largest sturgeon-producing state in the nation," said Ray, owner of Fish Breeders of Idaho.

Idaho still trails California, where two companies in the Sacramento Valley produce more than 7 tons a year. Sterling Caviar is the domestic industry's big fish for farmed white sturgeon caviar.

The beluga bans means "sales this year that are more intense than ever," manager Peter Struffenegger said.

The international trade on beluga has been tightening since 1998 when 170 countries, including the United States, listed the ancient species under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.