World History of Caviar

World History of Caviar

By: Austin Pejman Chehrazi and Wael Abu Zaid

From Rags to Riches

History of the fabled Sturgeon and its legendary roe is actually a story of rags to riches. Not necessarily for those trading in it, for many lost their shirt through the years, but for the fish itself and its unfertilized progeny. Yes, really.

Here goes Caviar Classic’s interpretation of this fabled history…

Prehistoric History

Our story starts millions of years before man’s feet ever touched any dirt on this earth.  250-300 million years to be exact, give or take a few million, placing their genesis from the Carboniferous Period 298.9 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Triassic Period 251.902 Mya. Sturgeons’ tails thrashed around earthly waters when giants roamed and must have been a favourite delicacy in the world of dinosaurs. Some later species date back to 100-150 Mya. Surprisingly, they have undergone little to no morphological change in all this time. They are an evolutionary enigma, having survived the Jurassic Period when the great majority of the creatures living up to that period did not.

Looking at them, one understands why they look as they do. They are our guests from a bygone era and do look out of place in today’s world. Maybe that much more the reason for us to look after them and make them feel a little bit less out of place. Looking at our history with them, however, it would be very hard to argue that we have been good hosts for our prehistoric guests. Historians cannot be certain if the dinosaurs and their giant brethren consumed it for itself, its roes, or perhaps the potpourri of flavours when eaten whole, Sturgeon, roes and all, but humans are certainly a late comer to the world of Caviar aficionados. Even pigs arrived at this table long before any emperor or jetsetter did. All over Europe and North America, as the Sturgeon meat was consumed, the pigs, and even dogs and goats were fed on the Caviar and innards to fatten them up.

Pre-Modern History

The ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans took the baton from the pigs who had taken it from the dinosaurs, but treated Caviar much closer to home to us than their more egalitarian predecessors did. To one of us, how Azov and Black Sea Persicus Caviar was served 2500 years ago at Greek Mainland, Asia Minor or Roman (food) orgies (and may be other stuff too) was not that different than what we’re used to seeing today. Opulent parties thrown by affluent parties gobbling up lots and lots of silver and black roes as they spilled as much as a many a laborer’s wage on god knows what surface, with lots of intoxicants. Maybe this can be called one of the oldest customs passed down straight to this day. Even religious practices have changed since then!

Nonetheless, history of Caspian Caviar, and Caviar as a cultural bridge, starts with the Persians who gave it the name we know it by today, “Khav-yar”, meaning “cake of strength” or “cake of power”, because the people of Persia attributed many medicinal powers to Caviar, which modern science backs up today. The Persians salted it and traded it far and wide, turning it into a currency of sorts, as it has remained through the ages. Perhaps the currency with the shortest lifespan, but worth the risk for certain. The last Tsar of Russia, who set world records at consuming it, required it as a tax from Caspian anglers in order to ensure he had enough for himself, his family and his banquet guests and nobles. It was those Tsars who actually mythologized Caviar in modern Europe and glorified it to its present status of high luxury. However, Sturgeon had earned its status as a “royal” fish in parts of Europe hundreds of years before, in the Middle Ages, where commoners would have been beheaded for crossing such kingly lines. Even before the Middle Ages, amongst Persian and Turkic royals, the same was the case.

This phenomenon of Sturgeon moving its way up as a delicacy for prehistoric giants, to food for livestock/pet, peasants, and then reaching royal status, historically is one of the greatest stories of rags to riches. What makes it especially noteworthy, and bolsters this history as logical, and not a story of chance or coincidence, is that this same unlikely story of this same ugly fish has transpired over and over non-linearly (time-wise) and at geographically unrelated places: further cementing this fish’s no nonsense diehard nature as deserving of the pedestal of emperor fish with imperial eggs. Disney could not have put together a better story than nature has, although it would have been a good flick. It still can.

The last nations that tried their hand at this losing game were the Americans and Canadians. The Americans, who had rather successfully rejected royalty with their legendary revolution, cannot be blamed for trying to dethrone the king yet once again, but what excuse do the Canadians have to give? In either case, the results are always the same, but in case of the Americans, history was not to repeat. But as no one can subdue the indomitable American spirit, and as the last Tsars were throwing royal balls halfway around the world, the Americans were fishing out so much Sturgeon they were throwing it to their dogs, sometimes with Caviar attached as well. Yet some still claim that history does not repeat! You be the judge…

North American Sturgeon History

In the second half of the 19th Century, people flocked to the east coast of the US to strike it “Caviar-rich”, in what came to be known as the “Black Gold Rush” and involved mainly Atlantic and shortnose Sturgeons, which for half a century supported a thriving profitable industry for Caviar, smoked meat and oil. In 1887, 3200 tons of Sturgeon were caught but by 1905 this amount had declined to 9 tons, in 1920 to 10 tons and by 1989 only 0.2 tons. Caviar was so plentiful in the 19th Century that it served the same position as bar nuts do today. Thirst maker! So many millions of Sturgeons were slaughtered to satisfy this thirst, that their species almost collapsed in many parts of North America at the start of the last century. If not for peanuts, we would have had to taken the word “almost” out of that last sentence. Therefore, it was how one of the cheapest foods in the world came to save the most expensive. Hmmm! That sounds like a very familiar place! However, the history of Sturgeon use in this part of the world by the Native American tribes dates back 4000 years, at least 2000 years before its recorded use in the Caspian. The natives of the Atlantic Coast harvested shortnose and Atlantic Sturgeons for their meat and eggs. Furthermore, these same species are credited with having saved Jamestown settlers in the bitter winter of 1607, the make or break moment for English colonization of North America and the coming into existence of the United States of America, a century and a half later.

Modern Sturgeon History

In the Caspian, until 1992, Iran and the Soviets had managed this resource rather well and it seemed that the top three Sturgeons had a bright future indeed. However, the fall of the USSR, and with it its commercial Sturgeon fishing regulations regime, led to the new post-Soviet ex-Soviet mafias driving this industry to the brink of bankruptcy, and the fish to the brink of extinction. Even by the late 1990s, Sturgeon populations in the Sea of Azov still numbered 17 million. A decade later, according to Azov Fishery Scientific Research Institute, only 100 reproduction-capable Sturgeons had survived, of which 15 were Stellate Sturgeon. So much so was this threat lightening-like, that a decade and a half after the Soviet Union, Sturgeon populations in the Lower Volga had seen a drop of 99% and those in the Caspian Sea had fallen to less than 2.5%, despite Russian government bans on black Caviar exports in 2002 in order to comply with international treaty obligations. By 2007, the H. Huso was on the brink of extinction in the northern reaches of the Caspian and tributaries. Only a handful of reproductive-capable females could be found. According to CITES, Sturgeon numbers in this sea had decreased from 200 million in the year 2000 to 60 million by 2008.

However, even before the 1990s, pressure had been building up on the Caspian Sturgeon stock, due to pollution, mining of sand and gravel, and dams on the tributary river systems in the Soviet Union. These were vital Sturgeon spawning grounds. Loss of breeding habitat in conjunction with overfishing/poaching prevented a sustainable rate of replacement. Between the late 1970s to the early 1990s, catches had already declined by 2/3rds. It takes a female Sturgeon more or less a decade, and up to two, to reach reproductive maturity. That is perhaps the greatest multiplier that fueled the multiple other reasons which have led this fish to the brink of extinction in just a few decades.

What probably helped in this dark age of Sturgeon history was Iranian religious boycott of Sturgeon in the 1980s, a stricter Soviet Sturgeon conservation policy that same decade, and the kilometer deep sector of the Caspian being entirely in Iranian waters. Yet, without stricter legal controls in the next decades, this would have only been a short respite. However, as Caspian stocks dwindled, eyes turned to other Sturgeon species around the world as range countries scrambled to put in a governance and control regime. Consequently, in this same period, US Caviar was being shipped to Europe and repackaged and sent back to the US as Caspian Caviar in order to fill the growing hole in supplies, and demand a higher price for inferior eggs. Nevertheless, until that point in history, 80% of the global Caviar output had come from wild Caspian sources.

The situation was not much better for Siberian/Amur Sturgeon either. Thus, it was by the end of the 20th Century, that the old paradigm of wild Caviar fishing gave way to the new paradigm of artificial reproduction through aquaculture-farmed fishing, as all the centers of this resource from North America, to Europe, Caspian and Siberia, had all been mismanaged to the ground. The first recorded attempts at artificial reproduction of Sturgeon dates back to 1869, when in order to restock wild populations, Ovsyannikov performed it on Sterlet (A. ruthenus) Sturgeon in Russia. Nevertheless, Stroganov in the 1940s and 50s first developed the basic methods and applications used in Sturgeon farming on a worldwide basis today. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as of today over 85% of Sturgeon species are classified as being at risk of extinction, making them more critically endangered than any other group of species. This fact, coupled with the growing demand for Caviar (due to pockets of wealth around the world since the turn of the 21st Century), have led to Sturgeon farming becoming the new norm of Sturgeon history, and this sector as the fastest growing aquaculture sector since the end of the 20th Century.

Photo Credit

It is not certain what future generations of Sturgeon would say about man binding their prehistoric guests within walled-in farming camps after millions of years of living together in freedom. It would be hard to argue that this history has been progressive in an era when man has been claiming it for himself. These regressive policies, interning the oldest freewheeling king fish, say more about man and his history than they ever do about that free spirit that we all hope will one day return in great numbers to every river and sea it once roamed, and beyond. Before that day can arrive, man has more of a reckoning with himself and with the things that really matter in this world… We know that this is not, and cannot be, the end of our beloved Sturgeon’s history and our future generations will write of an emperor fish that found its way to freedom, once again. Until then it is up to us all to protect wild Sturgeon in any way we can: This means saying yes to CITES rules and keeping things legal for this ancient gift of nature that we must protect in the wild and pass on to the next generations of man and fish… At least that is Caviar Classic’s interpretation of history and posterity as concerns our mutual concern…

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