History of Caviar

Sturgeon have been around for over 250 million years and are found only in the Northern Hemisphere. Some live most of their lives in brackish or salt water, but like salmon, return to fresh water for spawning. Unlike salmon, sturgeon can spawn multiple times throughout their lives, and can live to be over 100 years old.

Although is it not clear when people first ate caviar, its first written record of was from Batu Khan’s time (grandson of Genghis Khan) in the 1240s. The sturgeon caviar industry started in Eurasia and around the Mediterranean. Sturgeon roe was heavily salted and packed in wooden casks. Caviar did not become worldly until the latter part of the 1800s when the French started importing the delicacy from Russia. Molossol, or lightly salted caviar which we generally eat today, was not available until chilled transportation was developed.

At one time there were several sturgeon species of great abundance in and around Western Europe which supplied the local European markets but with the increasing demand and no control on fishing and caviar trade, European sturgeon became extinct.

Old picture of large White Sturgeon

Near the end of the 1800s Atlantic sturgeon on the east coast and white sturgeon on the west coast of North America were discovered to have a roe quality comparable to that from Russian sturgeons.

There was so much American caviar being produced in North America at that time that bars would serve the salty delicacy to encourage more beer drinking as peanuts are served today. At the turn of the 19th century there was more caviar going to Europe from North America than from Russia. By 1915 there were so few white sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon left that all fisheries were closed to both sport and commercial use. It was only in the late 1950s that a sport fishery was allowed on the West Coast for white sturgeon.

Once wild sturgeon stocks had been wiped out in North America and Europe, more than 95% of the world’s supply of caviar was obtained from sturgeon from the Caspian Sea in Russia and Iran. In the early 1950s, the Russians began serious industrialization and started building dams on the major rivers so sturgeons, which spawn in fresh water, were blocked in their spawning runs. Russian scientists went to work figuring out how to artificially spawn sturgeon. Once they had determined how to do this, they built hatcheries below their dams, capturing males and females on their spawning run, processing most into caviar and meat, and using a relatively small number of mature males and females to spawn the next generations.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the strict controls on sturgeon harvest and caviar production had been diminished. The new free states found that caviar sales were a rapid way to generate cash. The Russians no longer have strong enforcement of the region so poaching is going uncontrolled and the caviar mafia has taken over much of the processing and distribution of the resulting caviar.

Iran has been able to maintain a close control of the caviar industry on the southern end of the Caspian. Although Iran produces a very high quality product, the pollution does affect their resource as well.

In the late 1970s, one of the top Russian lead fisheries scientists defected from Russia. By 1980, he had become a professor at the University of California, Davis near Sacramento, California. He obtained some initial grants to apply the spawning techniques the Russians had developed for their species of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea to species of sturgeon in the US. Being close to San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River, he chose to work with the white sturgeon, as that area was the natural spawning ground for this species. It is this source of white sturgeon which is now the foundation of the American caviar industry.

Sterling Caviar LLC became a research partner on this project to apply the acquired Russian know-how on hatcheries and has become one of the first complete sturgeon aquaculture operations in the world. Although the Russians learned to spawn sturgeon back in the 1950s, they never took the fish past the fingerling stage. Since the start of the farmed-sturgeon industry, we have been the first producer of farmed caviar in the world and we are now able to offer to our clients a true, premium sustainably-produced caviar.

Worldwide, the concern for wild stocks of sturgeon traditionally used primarily for the production of caviar, mostly in the Caspian Sea, has increased as these stocks came under duress after the break up of the Soviet Union and the uncontrollable poaching that followed. In 1998, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) added all species of sturgeon in the world not already listed by CITES onto Appendix II, which controls the international trade of products from these fish product to aid in the enforcement and regulation in international trade of all caviar.

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