Caviar: Global Production

By: Austin Pejman Chehrazi and Wael Abu Zaid

Producers and Production Levels

By 2020, annual production hovers around 100,000 tons of Sturgeon and 400 tons of Caviar, of a wide variety of species, but mostly concentrating on the Caspian species, Siberian species, or a crossbred sector of these, all around the world.

Of the 27 species of Sturgeon worldwide, 13 pure and 4 hybrids are mostly farmed for meat, with Acipenser baerii [Siberian Sturgeon] dominating production in 2016 with a share of 39.5%, followed by the two hybrids, Huso dauricus × Acipenser schrenckii [Imperial] and A. baerii  × A. schrenckii (35.6%), as well as A. schrenckii [ Japanese or  Amur Sturgeon] (10.2%).

The species most used for Caviar Production worldwide in 2016-17, showed A. baerii (31% of the total volume), followed by Acipenser gueldenstaedtii [Osietra Caviar](20%), the hybrid H. dauricus  × A. schrenckii [Imperial Caviar](13%), and Acipenser transmontanus [White Sturgeon](12%), while other species jointly contributed 24% to the overall yield.

During the best years of the 20th Century, sometimes production levels even reached close to a thousand tons and more of Caviar, just from the Caspian Sea. However, the end of that century spelled out the end of abundant Sturgeon numbers in the wild, production dropped to an average 100 tons a year from the Caspian Sea (1970-90), and even to a tenth of that by the turn of the century. A number of countries rushed to fill the gap through aquaculture, the most successful of which has been China. The other half of the market consists of Persian Gulf novices, such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE (with indoor Caviar farms to match indoor ski slopes), to a number of EU countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Hungary, Poland), Belarus, UK, Switzerland, Israel, Chile, Uruguay, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, Madagascar, and the US. Bulgaria and Romania, using EU subsidies, have brought the Sturgeon back to the Black Sea shores, even though they are the only EU countries that still hold viable wild Sturgeon populations, despite problems.

Even Russia and Iran have had to go down the path of marine agriculture to preserve their dwindling natural stocks, along with the other new littoral states of the Caspian. Because of 15 years of preparation and hard work worldwide, aquaculture Sturgeon production peaked in 2015 to around 130,000 tons but then dropped to 120,000 tons in 2016 and to 102,000 tons in 2017 (not all for Caviar production). This trend, better demonstrated in China, and a growing domestic Chinese market for Caviar, forecasts rising prices and less availability in the coming decade. Yet, in 2017, with a near 10% growth in their numbers, around 2400 farms produced a wide variety of Sturgeon in 56 countries, overtaking fisheries’ catches and aiding in protecting this precious resource in the wild.

Of these farms, China operates 54%, Russia 24%, Mideast 8%, Far East 7% and Europe 6%. Subsequently, China led the way (80,000 tons) in farmed Sturgeon production, followed by Russia (6800 tons), Armenia (6000 tons) and Iran (2500 tons), and the rest of the 52 countries less than 1000 tons each. Resultantly, China produced 100 tons of Caviar (equal to the entire EU), Russia 49 tons, Italy 43 tons, and Iran and France 37 tons each. Europe (EU countries) had traditionally produced Sturgeon for meat consumption but market requirements have led it to shift concentration to Caviar production. The largest producer in the EU has been Italy, with around 1000 tons of Sturgeon production annually and around 50 tons of Caviar, putting her in the top-5 Caviar producers worldwide.

Rearing Methods

There are a number of Sturgeon farming methods with varying levels of negative and positive aspects and comfort and cruelty for these valuable fish, one of which could be worth as much as the most expensive car on the market, when matured with roes. Flow-through systems [FT] (36%), recirculation aquaculture systems [RAS] (21%), Caging (18%), mixed FT/RAS (11%), and Ponds (6%), are the most prevalent Sturgeon farming methods used worldwide. RAS captures effluent from tanks and repurpose them for agricultural usage. This is perhaps the most sustainable and eco-friendly Sturgeon farming system. Sturgeon are a very labour-intensive fish to raise, as they are prone to a number of bacterial and fungal infections, especially in high density caging systems.

Example of Open Net farms
How recirculating Fish Farm System works.

Production Considerations

Many problems can occur due to years of poor water quality in high-density fish farms. It is most important to keep the water free of fecal matter, which adversely affects the quality and flavor of the roe, in addition to the well-being of the fish. What is equally as important, is feeding the fish with a high-energy feed, which is a great investment to continue around the clock for years. As they are carnivorous, so they have to be fed fishmeal pellets which are fortified with fish oils and vegetable extracts.

The cleanest water and best food are not enough to make high quality roes on their own. The origin of the species is of course key, as the best cultivation and harvesting cannot turn an inferior Sturgeon specie’s roes into what Caviar aficionados would dare to eat. The technique for farming the fish is also important, especially because some methods can put extra stress on the fish, and stress is akin to poison for the Caviar. It unfavorably affects the texture and taste of the Sturgeon meat and the roes, and if close to harvest, it triggers them to reabsorb their eggs in order to recoup their energy. It would take 2 years before one could expect new eggs to develop again. In such a case, any eggs that can be messaged out would be squishy and jelly-like, with a stronger fishy taste than usual.

There is also one other issue that has been an impediment to Sturgeon aquaculture as opposed to other fish, and that is the long investment return period due to initial female maturation time. For example, it can take 8-10 years for the sex of H. Huso (Beluga Caviar) to be determined and another 6-8 years for female reproductive maturation, for optimum Caviar quality, under proper natural cold-water conditions. Besides, the sex of the Sturgeon is indiscernible from any outward signs and therefore high frequency ultrasound is used for this purpose. Various methods are used to sedate the Sturgeon for this purpose, such as use of CO2, or low electric current, or sedatives. However, not all Sturgeons take as long as H. Huso to mature and produce eggs (18-20 yrs.) and most range between 5-10 years, depending on species, water temperatures and feeding levels. Some farms use higher water temperatures in order to quicken this process, but Caviar from colder waters is of higher quality due to its higher fat content. Besides, it is always best to mimic nature as much as possible to get as close to the same results. For example, in nature, Sturgeons take a break from feeding in the cold winters during the coldest times of the year.

Life Cycle of a sturgeon. Photo Credit: Taaja Tucker

Harvesting Caviar

The labor intensive and technical nature of raising Sturgeons gives way to a job that requires grand specialized knowledge and years of experience once the time comes when the eggs are ready to harvest. Harvesting, cleansing, handling, grading and curing properly and naturally, packaging them, and storing them at the right temperature to keep them fresh for the longest time possible, are those post-production actions that if not done properly, would ruin years and years of investment and hard work.

Once the female Sturgeon reaches harvest time, it needs to be cleansed internally by being given cold clean water while food is withheld, for several weeks. The traditional method of harvesting leaves the fish to be used for its meat, but there are methods that are more humane. By making a small slit, the eggs are slowly messaged out of the Sturgeon, and although it is a time consuming affair, it is not as time consuming as raising a Sturgeon to maturity, and more gentle to the welfare of the fish as well, as they live longer lives too. These ethical methods are considered another form of “sustainable” fishing. Yet, the jury is still out on the quality of ethical roes standing up to classical (harvested) roes, as they are harvested before they are fully mature.

After gently removing the eggs from the fish, by whatever method, which can contain as many as a million eggs for a century old albino, they are passed through a Caviar sieve and washed until clean, pad dried and salted. The most natural way to present Caviar for consumption would be as it is, but it would only last a few weeks refrigerated. That is why salt is used as the best natural preservative. Unfortunately, some use boric acid and/or sodium borate (naturally occurring mineral salt which is a type of laundry detergent), and/or some other unnatural preservatives to make it last longer, and as flavour enhancers. The Caviar is then packed in glass jars or lacquer-lined cans while being slowly pressed to clear it of air. Some Caviar is “aged” and packed after 12 months, if a stronger flavour is desired, depending on the geographical market. It is vital for all the air to be pressed out slowly as oxygen leads to faster spoilage. The containers must become hermetically sealed.

Sturgeon Eggs passed through Caviar sieve. Photo Credit:

After sealing the container, Caviar is typically aged for 3 months before sale, in order to allow its taste to develop. Fresh unsalted Caviar can only be stored refrigerated, at 3 to -1 degrees Celsius, for up to 30 days. Some brands pasteurize their eggs, which would not be considered “fresh” anymore, as they are “boiled”, even if for a short time, affecting taste and texture. In addition, fresh Caviar is a live product, much like unpasteurized milk, and pasteurizing it makes it not live anymore. That is why pasteurized Caviar can be stored at room temperature for up to a year. Freezing or drying Caviar also reduces quality, flavour and texture, but allows for even longer storage without spoilage.

At King Caviar, it is our goal to always source from the most sustainable and environmentally friendly aquafarms in order to do our part in moving farming methods in the right direction and to serve our valued customers with only the highest quality healthy products. That is our guarantee to our valued customers…

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