A Symbol Of Indulgent Excess, Caviar Is The New Starlet Of Sustainability

The next step: black gold produced globally without killing sturgeon.

A Symbol Of Indulgent Excess, Caviar Is The New Starlet Of Sustainability
Image: Tyler Nix/Unsplash

This winter, as with every other harvest season, California Caviar Company CEO and founder Deborah Keane and her team will lift sturgeon from their tanks to produce tons of the unctuous black orbs prized by gourmands the world over. Except this year, on top of a bountiful harvest, Keane is hoping that the US Food and Drug Administration will approve her final samples so that come 2021, she can craft the first domestic caviar without having to slaughter the sturgeon that produced it. 

Unlike the traditional method, where the fish’s ovaries are surgically removed with the roe inside, this so-called “no-kill” method involves workers massaging mature eggs from the sturgeon’s belly, stabilising them in a calcium bath so they retain their pearl-like texture and can be cured, before the fish are released back into the water. 

The process was invented by marine biologist Dr Angela Köhler more than a decade ago to make farming sturgeon more economically appealing, thereby undermining the poaching of threatened wild sturgeon — a family of fish that’s been around for over 200 million years and has been listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) — a treaty that aims to regulate the international trade of endangered species — since 1998. 

Sturgeon black caviarImage: Getty Images

“If the caviar will be available [at] a reasonable price, it doesn’t make any sense anymore to catch wild sturgeon,” says Köhler, whose former employer, Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, holds the patent for her technique. 

At first glance, sustainable caviar might sound like an oxymoron, given that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says sturgeon are “more critically endangered than any other group of species”, with most of the family’s 27 species at risk of extinction due to overfishing, habitat pollution and the building of dams that prevent the fish from travelling to their spawning grounds. The fact that sturgeon can take from seven to 22 years to reach egg-producing maturity, and might subsequently ovulate only every four to eight years, compounds the devastating effects of human activities. 

In 2006, the worldwide trade in wild caviar (then estimated to be worth US$100 million annually) was banned for the first time after nine major caviar-producing countries — Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Ukraine — failed to convince CITES that their stocks of wild sturgeon were sustainable. 

By then, caviar producers had already started farm-raising sturgeon, leaving wild stocks to recover. In the 1980s, Sterling Caviar started working with research universities such as California’s UC Davis to pioneer land-based aquaculture of the state’s endemic white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, a few miles from its natural habitat in Sacramento Delta. The company took its last brood stock spawned from wild sturgeon in the early 1990s, later releasing back into the river young fish stock raised on the farm. 

“White sturgeon in California are one of the very few of least concern on the Endangered Species Act. And we’d like to think that our efforts have contributed to that,” says Sterling’s former production manager Eric Phillips, a fisheries biologist who worked with the company for 23 years. 

Farms in Sacramento, responsible for some 80 percent of US caviar production, have a solid history of sturgeon conservation and land stewardship. The two systems used in aquaculture — closed loop recirculation and flow-through operations that ultimately return clean water to the ecosystem — are both eco-Certified by Seafood Watch, as they pose no threat to the environment, wild stocks or other species. 

Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, which also runs farm tours and caviar tastings, pipes nitrates-enriched water from fish waste to a greenhouse to grow USDA-certified organic butter lettuce and watercress in a circulating aquaponic system. Products are sold under the label Bare Roots Produce at Whole Foods Market and farmers’ markets. 

Image: Jermaine Ee/Unsplash

Meanwhile, California Caviar Company takes water from its aquifer, runs it through sturgeon tanks, then through filters and ponds of bass, carp and catfish before directing it to irrigate the fields of neighbouring cattle farms where it returns to the natural aquifer. 

“The water I drink is the same water that the fish are swimming in. Even in a drought, our water tables do not drop because of our infinity loop,” says Keane, who owns and operates her own farm. 

Farms also sell sturgeon meat for human consumption, utilising any remaining waste to feed their fish. 

But harvesting the same fish multiple times is the ultimate goal for complete sustainability — something that a visit to the Caspian Sea in 2005 brought home to Köhler. 

During a congress on marine pollution in Iran, Köhler and other attendees were invited on a tour of a caviar production facility. A 20-year-old female sturgeon was brought in, hit on the head with a wooden block and sliced open so the egg-containing ovaries could be removed. But the workers realised the fish was close to spawning, meaning the roe was too mature. 

“They carried the dead female away and discarded 10kg of caviar, hundreds of thousands of eggs — what a waste of life! — and brought in a new individual for the demonstration,” recalls Köhler. “I was shocked, as were the other people in the audience.” 

Upon returning home, Köhler vowed to find a way to produce caviar without harming the sturgeon. 

Farmers often strip eggs from a fish when spawning, and, to a lesser extent, for food products, but roe behaves differently once it’s mature, making it unsuitable for caviar production. Whereas immature eggs don’t react when they touch water, ovulated eggs turn into a mealy, goopy mass — it’s what makes the roe stick to rocks in the wild so it can be fertilised, and where eggs will remain, protected, as the baby fish develop. 

Image: Tyler Nix/Unsplash

Trialling her method first with sea urchins, Köhler realised that she could rinse mature roe in calcium to allow them to retain their texture, and then cure them to produce a caviar product. (Her method works for every egg-laying marine animal.) 

With help from Köhler, the world’s first “no-kill” caviar company was established in 2010, trading under the brand name Vivace until it shuttered in 2015 due to disagreements between the producer, investor and bank. 

Keane, who held the exclusive licence to distribute Vivace in the US, believes the global market is more than ready for “no-kill” caviar. 

For one, caviar is seeing a surge in popularity. According to Orbis Research, the global caviar market was worth US$356.2 million ($475 million) in 2019 and will grow to US$531.45 million by 2027. 

Caviar produced via the Köhler method is not only cruelty-free but also offers a different proposition in terms of experience. As the membrane around the roe becomes thicker as it matures, making it harder for the salt cure to permeate, caviar made this way has a more subtle flavour and firmer texture than traditional caviar. It can be frozen and defrosted without sacrificing quality, so there’s no need to plan around overnighting a shipment or going to a store in good time for a dinner party; it also stands up much better to cooking processes, a boon to consumers seeking new ways to enjoy the product. 

Keane, who says her online retail business has seen a 10-fold uptick since the pandemic — with customers being unable to travel or dine out, and looking to indulge more at home — has noticed a shift in demographic from middle-aged executive types happy to shell out US$50 a mouthful to young female professionals asking for recipes. 

Currently, two small producers are deploying Köhler’s method: KC Caviar in the UK & Köhler’s own facility. Köhler, who now runs her own consulting company Akazie to help farmers secure the rights to use the patent, says a Danish company will likely use it in 2022, followed by an Austrian company in 2023. Other companies in Germany, Austria, Portugal, Scotland,  Russia, Japan and the UAE look set to follow. 

Keane, who now holds the exclusive right to use the patent in North America, intends to deploy it for roughly half of her harvest in 2021, before helping other American farmers adopt the “no-kill” method of caviar production. 

“Köhler has mastered the art of truly sustainable caviar,” says Keane.

This story first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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