Sustainable caviar – searching questions for chefs… for everyone… to ask.

Sturgeon have been fished almost to extinction, but now it’s safe to buy caviar without worrying about all that because fishing wild sturgeon is illegal – right?

Wrong.

A recent study found that 21% caviar came from illegally fished sturgeon; and 32% wasn’t even caviar in Europe. And the situation in the US is no better. 90% of seafood in that country comes from unsustainable sources, we don’t know how much of that is caviar. In any case, there are some areas where wild sturgeon are fished legally under very controlled and sustainable conditions.

But, if the caviar is the produce of farmed fish, then it’s fine – right?

Wrong again.
Sturgeon can be reared in farms, but the conditions filthy and crowded; fish can be pumped full of antibiotics and hormones… which they pass on to their human predators; the facilities can be energy-greedy and bi-products carelessly thrown away.

I’ve heard of no-kill caviar… that’s got to be the way to go, surely?

Not necessarily.

How can chefs and responsible consumers find their way through the labyrinth of false and misleading information to source sustainable caviar?

The short answer is by doing three things:

  1. by sourcing directly from the producer
  2. by a careful examination of the producer’s website
  3. by looking for certain things on the labelling and packaging

Below we give a short briefing on caviar production today and the good and bad practices from a sustainability point of view; and below that we give details of the important questions to ask, and where to find the answers by checking producers’ websites and a careful, informed examination of the label. You could even have a look at the facility using Google Earth… piles of rubbish etc would not be a good indicator.

Illegal unsustainable caviar – it’s still available

Sturgeon has been energetically fished for its valuable caviar for centuries. For a long time it was mostly a delicacy for tsars, emperors, kings and princes but when aristocratic Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks reached 1920s Paris, they brought with them their taste it, they shared it with their friends, and demand escalated.

Some eighty years later, In 1998 sturgeon was proclaimed by the Washington Convention to be in danger of extinction. Finally, in the nick of time in 2008, sturgeon fishing in the Caspian was officially banned.

Today you will read that fishing for wild sturgeon is illegal, and therefore non-sustainable caviar no longer exists. If only. As recently as 2021 sturgeon was continuing to be fished, for example, in the Lower Danube. Then Romania banned the fishing and selling of wild sturgeon on an indefinite basis. Bulgaria remains the last country in the Black Sea Basin without a permanent ban, but it has extended its temporary ban until 2026. In the meantime a study published by Cell Press on 20 November 2023,  Poaching and illegal trade of Danube sturgeons, made a study of sturgeon caviar and meat sourced in Lower Danube countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine).  

Of 149 samples 21% were of illegal, wild-caught origin; 11.4% were sold in violation of CITES and EU regulations; and 32% weren’t even caviar.

Romania and Bulgaria are EU members – illegal or fake caviar there can easily move to other EU countries.

In terms of international trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), is an international treaty aiming to avoid animal and plant extinction. All sturgeon and derivatives of sturgeon need a CITES permit in order to be internationally traded.

But the CITES restrictions have exceptions and the policing is inconsistent. Chefs and consumers in general are not aware of them, and don’t know how to spot malpractice.

Not all caviar from wild sturgeon is fished illegally

Some caviar is produced from wild sturgeon which is fished legally. A good example of this is the caviar produced by Arcadian Caviar based on the St John river in New Brunswick, Canada.

Arcadian Wild Caviar comes from Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) bought from a small, local fishery. Every sturgeon is counted and measured and regular and frequent reports are given to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans who monitor and limit numbers to ensure sustainability. In comparison with tank-reared fish, these fish have a wild, natural life.

In the meantime, Acadian Sturgeon has developed its own impressive breeding facility. I visited this facility as part of the research for this article, and I was shown around by the owner, Cornel Ceapa. He’s a legend in the caviar world, passionate, enthusiastic and with extensive knowledge  (he has a PhD in Sturgeon Biology). The company not only energetically supports the regeneration of the local sturgeon population, it is also working to help restock the dwindling  Baltic Sea stocks with sturgeon from St John, which, according to a study published recently in Nature magazine, were also originally native in the Baltic.

Caviar from farmed fish

Not all fish farms are created equal. The sturgeon is a very sensitive fish, and under stressful conditions they don’t produce many, or any, eggs. For this reason, and because breeding and rearing sturgeon is such a long-term investment (a Beluga doesn’t begin to reproduce until she’s 15), you would expect every farmer to ensure conditions are the best they can be. Alas, this is far from the case.

The main distinguishing features of a well-run facility are:

  • Feed
  • Water quality
  • Space and depth
  • Use of chemicals…antibiotics, hormones etc

Feed

Most sturgeon are ‘bottom feeders’ – their mouths are on their underside. In the wild they eat algae and small lobsters and crabs which live in the rocks and pebbles on the sea bed.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch programme sets standards for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture operations. Seafood watch says that caviar producers using dry pellet feed mostly have a yellow feed score which is acceptable. The important thing is that the feed should not float or disintegrate – it needs to replicate as far as possible the algae upon which the sturgeon naturally feed.
A question to consider is how much wild fish are the farmed sturgeon eating and what other sources of protein are incorporated into their feed; if there’s fish oil, it should include 100% of the trimmings. And is the feed GMO free? Is it ethoxyquin-free? Ethoxyquin is a synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative in some animal feed (it’s also in some dog food…. You might want to check…).

Most sturgeon are bottom feeders.

Water quality

The source

The quality of the water, when it enters the area where the sturgeon are farmed, as it runs through it, and when it leaves the area, is absolutely key. Water is as important to the quality of the caviar as terroir is to the quality of wine. And the quality of the waste water is also important from an environmental point of view. Filthy, infected waste water can be devastating to the surrounding sea life. Stagnant water bursting with antibiotics and hormones is equally devastating for the sturgeon, to say nothing of the quality of the caviar they produce.
A number of farms are able to take advantage of natural underground springs. An example of this is Salmo Pan (the farm which produces Adamas caviar), situated in the centre of the Parco del Fiume Tormo, a national park in Italy. At Tropenhaus Frutigen (which produces Oona caviar) in Switzerland the fish (perch and zander are also farmed here) benefit from the warm water from internal springs in the Lötschberg mountain which feeds into a recirculation system.

Within the farm

The recirculation system at  Tropenhaus Frutigen is kept clean by filtration, and also by eschewing the use of antibiotics, hormones, and other medication.

A similar process is in operation where the southernmost caviar in the world is produced, in the Kenoz farm and plants in Patagonia. This company cultivates denitrifying bacteria in the biofilters which enables 95% of the water to be recirculated. The plant only needs one-twentieth of what its initial requirement might have been.

Water in fish farms can become oxygen-poor. Sometimes liquid oxygen is used to supplement the shortfall. But the production of liquid oxygen requires a lot of energy, and using it can be dangerous and problematic. The Kenoz plant uses the surrounding air, and it uses that air to push the water through the tanks, thus saving further energy. Their claim is that they use only 5% of the energy required by a traditional recirculation system.

Water quality is essential. This is one of the breeding tanks at Arcadia Sturgeon’s facility in New Brunswick.
The water that goes out into the environment

The water that leaves a fish farm is just as critical. Seafood reports that, although most US producers can re release a certain amount of daily water flow without treatment and that that water may well contain chemicals, the risk of disease transmission is low if fish are farmed in indoor recirculating tanks where disease outbreaks are rare.

Some farms try to have a positive affect on the nature around them. The water that leaves the Kenoz facility, for example, is treated to include nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, all rich natural fertilisers for the surrounding agriculture.

Space and depth

Sturgeon like depth (they’re used to living some 20-30 metres down) – they are used to darkness, some are almost blind. And, they do not like being overcrowded, they need space.

Some farms publish tank sizes. Unfortunately the Chinese farms don’t have a good reputation either in terms of space, or of water quality.

Use of chemicals…antibiotics, hormones etc

If there isn’t a good flow of water, and everything isn’t kept spotless disease can proliferate, and antibiotics are a quick fix. Hormones too can be used, particularly when a no-kill approach is used…

The ‘no kill’ approach

There are some producers going down the ‘no kill’ approach.

They argue that this method saves the lives of the sturgeon, and also produces a fresher, cleaner tasting caviar. They say they can harvest caviar from the fish without harming or killing them, and at the end of their life (but hopefully before they stop reproducing!) they will be released into ‘conservation lakes’ to help reboot wild population. Just how realistic this ‘blissful retirement’ really is, is questionable.

The main argument is that it is years before it’s possible to distinguish between male and female sturgeon (when it’s done often by using ultrasound), and yet more years before they start spawning. Thereafter, the older the fish, the higher the yield. Killing a valuable fish after such a long investment of both time and money doesn’t make sense, either from an economic, or a humane point of view.

One principal scientist behind this approach is Angela Köhler who, working for the Alfred Wegener Institute, has developed a way to stabilise the eggs once they’ve been ‘massaged’ out of the fish. Now there are farms in Germany (where the institute is based), Iceland, Sweden, UK (KC Caviar), and California (California Caviar Company).

On the KC Caviar website, they state that:

“These farmers are using the same husbandry methods that they have used for decades for breeding / spawning sturgeon but are now putting a percentage of the eggs through a tried and tested relatively secret process, to make sustainable Caviar.”

But the exact method is still under wraps, it’s that ‘relatively secret’ phrase which is worrying.

There are other ‘no kill’ methods in operation which use hormones or other chemicals to induce labour – and the result affects the taste of the caviar.

This is likely to involve a C section operation every couple of years (if the roe once touches water it is ruined), but this can traumatise the fish and also result in infection.

There is also a method known as ‘the snip’, or ‘stripping’ whereby a small incision is made along the urogenital muscle, when the timing is absolutely right (again, ultrasound is used to gauge readiness), and the roe removed. Again, this can result in infection.

Why you should source directly from the producer

There’s an enormous amount of rebranding which goes on in the caviar trade. Middlemen tend to give little or no information about sustainable practices, animal husbandry, compliance with industry standards, support for regeneration programmes and much more.

What to look for on a caviar producer’s website

On the other hand, the website of a responsible, sustainable producer will offer a wealth of information. Bear in mind that what’s missing from the website may be as revealing as what is included. Look for:

  • Passion to bring sturgeon back from the brink of extinction – do they have a breeding facility to support this? They will be using their own stock, or at least sourcing from other reputable breeders; and they will be donating the fry they breed to help build up at-risk sturgeon populations.
  • Do they offer tours? If yes, they feel proud of their facility.
  • Have they gained certification from respected industry bodies who can assess standards effectively?
  • Do they give information about the water they use, its source, how it’s circulated, what happens to the waste water?
  • Do they offer assurances that antibiotics, hormones, and other medication and chemicals are not used?
  • Do you see evidence of the producer’s commitment to sustainability in other areas of the business – for example are they using renewable energy. And is their packaging sustainable – for example are they using recycled plastic?
  • And finally, Are they selling other sturgeon products?
    • Sturgeon meat (as long as it’s free from antibiotics, hormones etc) is a superfood! 200g will give you four days’ worth of Omega 3 as well as 136% of your recommended vitamin D intake, and it’s also packed with protein and iron. But it’s also one of those heavenly things which is not just good for you, but also (especially when smoked) delicious! At Acadian  they sell loins, fillets, and an excellent pâté.
    • Other bi-products have all kinds of uses. Sturgeon contain a lot of collagen, which gets put into anti-age serums.
    • The bones and cartilage can be turned into glue with is used in art restoration and also for making musical instruments.

What to look for on the packaging and the label

The packaging, the vessel, and the label can all reveal a great deal. Again, here’s what to look for:

The label

Under CITES regulations, the label needs to be unremovable.

And there needs to be an identification code. Farmed Beluga caviar from Iran in 2019 for example should have the code:

HUS (for Beluga)/C (for farmed… as opposed to ‘w’, wild)/IR (for Iran)/2019 (the year of production)/a packing code/and a lot number.

For a very helpful booklet on how to read the code, go to the CITES website.

The code on a caviar label can tell you a lot.

The preservatives used

Not too much salt

In order to produce caviar, salt is added to the roe. First of all the roe is carefully picked over (in some places this is done with tweezers). It’s rinsed and then drained before a saltwater solution is added. There is a very traditional method of salting known as ‘Malassol’ which means ‘little salt’ in Russian. Under this method 5% is the maximum salt content, but those in the know prefer somewhere between 1- 3.7%. Then the caviar is chilled for up to an hour while it absorbs the salt. The salt improves the texture and taste of the caviar but less is more. You should not be able to detect any grains of salt in your caviar because it should be absorbed by osmosis.

The caviar is put into large tins to mature for at least three months. Here, Cornel Ceapa of Arcadian Sturgeon, shows us how they are stored in carefully monitored chilling cabinets. The maturing of caviar is another key aspect of caviar production, in the same way it is for wine, and for cheese.

Every detail is important when it comes to caviar. I asked Cornel Ceapa, owner of Arcadian Sturgeon, what type of salt he uses. “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you,” he laughed, “I won’t even say if it’s sea salt or rock salt!”

Caviar with up to an 8% salt content is known as ‘salted caviar’ or ‘semi-preserved’ caviar. With more than 10% salt content it becomes ‘pressed’ caviar.

No borax

A lot of caviar is produced using borax. This is not ideal – it alters the texture and and makes the caviar harder… you can ‘pop’ it in your mouth. The only countries where borax is illegal to use as a preservative for caviar are Japan, and Canada (where it is not policed). Because of the western obsession with salt, borax tends to be used to help extend shelf life. But overall it’s better to use careful refrigeration rather than either excessive salt. Borax is best left out altogether.

Pasteurisation

Pasteurisation changes the texture of the caviar.

Other ways of extending shelf life

At Arcadia Caviar they have developed an innovative gel-pack to help extend shelf life.

The packaging

  • Is the caviar in a glass jar or a tin? Contamination is more likely in glass; the vacuum works better with a tin.
  • Is the packaging sustainable, as we mention above? It’s a tick for recycled plastic; it’s a cross for Styrofoam
Auston, the highly sophisticated son of a potential supplier to Arcadia Sturgeon, helped me sample some of the caviar ‘bi-products’. He really loved the smoked sturgeon, impressive!

Conclusion

The magnificent sturgeon, this ‘living fossil’, this ‘dinosaur of the sea’ which has survived for some 200 million years, remains in danger of becoming extinct in the wild thanks to persistent fishing, polluted waters, and climate change. Sustainable practices, farming, repopulation all help avoid this, but they need to be monitored and controlled. Governments can help, but so can consumers.

For another post describing the different types of caviar, how to eat them, what to eat them with, and what to drink with them, follow this link.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

Pete Thompson on creating the first home-grown British-made baijiu for the Year of the Rat

Pete Thompson is a third-generation farmer who has had to adapt with the times and has taken a very inventive path. Taking the plunge initially…
Read More

Lovage and Chervil – discovering some unusual herbs with broadcaster and gardener, Judith Hann

This summer I toured the Cotswolds, and, researching the area I discovered that the renowned herb garden of broadcaster, Judith Hann, was only a few…
Read More

Sign up to our Saucy Newsletter

subscribe today for monthly highlights of foodie events, new restaurant at home menus, recipe ideas and our latest blog posts