Doing without beluga caviar
to save the sturgeon
By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
October 06, 2005
American gourmands are going to
have to find an alternative to their $1,700-a-pound beluga caviar
after the U.S. government slams the door on importing the eggs
of Caspian Sea sturgeon this month.
Once prized by Russian czars and
French courtesans, the smoky, delicate eggs found in beluga
sturgeon caught only in the Caspian Sea are fast disappearing.
On Oct. 21, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service says it will impose a ban on importing beluga caviar
from the Caspian region, leaving gourmands bereft of the world's
most expensive delicacy.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said
it gave due notice of its actions to countries bordering the
Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan
- that it would ban caviar sales unless the countries agreed
on a plan to save depleted sturgeon stocks.
Agency spokesman Ken Burton said
the U.S. government might reconsider the ban if the countries
come up with a workable plan for recovering the sturgeon. The
ban applies both to commercial shipments of Caspian Sea beluga
caviar and to any caviar that American tourists to the region
bring back with them.
Environmental groups, which sought
the import ban, said they are pleased. "If the beluga doesn't
merit as being threatened, I don't know what else does," said
Joey Brookhart of the Sea Food Choice Alliance. "I put the beluga
on the same pedestal as elephants and African ivory."
Mark Zaslavsky, president of the
Caviar, said he is raising beluga sturgeon on a Florida
fish farm that he launched in anticipation of the ban. He said
the sturgeon are about three years away from being mature enough
to produce caviar.
Zaslavsky said the U.S. government
decision will only encourage a black market for Caspian Sea
beluga caviar and less money for Russia's aquaculture industry,
which has been growing replacement sturgeon.
"I'm not a supporter of the ban,"
he said. "When we were buying from Russia, for every kilo (gram)
of caviar bought, they were releasing 100 (sturgeon) fry in
the Volga River" where the sturgeon spawn, he said. He said
banning imports means the Russian government won't have the
money to continue the replenishment program, and so will result
only in further depleting the Caspian Sea sturgeon.
The United States is the third-largest
consumer of caviar in the world.
But Rick Moonen, chef and owner
of the chic RM seafood restaurant at the Mandalay Bay Hotel
in Las Vegas, said the quality of Caspian Sea imports varied
so much that he stopped using it in his restaurant five years
"There's been a lot of illegal
trading and packing different items" in tins labeled as Caspian
Sea caviar, he said, explaining the import didn't pass his taste
Moonen said there are already American-farmed
varieties that are just as good, and he said he's found a farmed
trout roe that competes with Caspian Sea caviar in flavor. He
says he uses caviar as a garnish and likes it with a farmed
abalone cutlet, cooked lightly and served with sea-urchin butter.
"That's a dish. Worth a trip," he said.
Moonen said caviar will be a niche
market because customers expect to see it on a menu. It might
carry a hefty price tag, "but then people are willing to pay
$500 to play a round of golf, too."
Frank Chapman, an aquaculture researcher
at the University of Florida, said the ban will encourage an
expansion of sturgeon farming. In the last decade, scientists
found ways of farming slow-growing, coldwater fish like the
sturgeon, one of the "living fossils" that can be traced back
to the age of the dinosaurs.
It takes 15 years for female sturgeon
to be ready to develop eggs. Sturgeon can live up to 100 years
and grow to almost 3,000 pounds, although larger fish are rare
today because of over-fishing.
"We developed the technology to
feed them well. As long as they've got food, they will grow
just like in the wild," Chapman said. The other advantage of
farming sturgeon is that the farms can guarantee a consistent
supply of high-quality roe.
In addition to those in Florida,
sturgeon farms are also flourishing in California, he said.
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