The United States is expected to impose a blanket ban very shortly on the import of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea region, in a move designed to prevent the delicacy from vanishing forever from melba toasts and fine bone china dishes because of drastic environmental damage and over-harvesting.
Beluga has long been considered the tastiest and most aristocratic of caviars, especially in the United States, which accounts for almost 80 per cent of consumption. But, last year, the US officially placed the fish that produces the rare roe, the beluga sturgeon, on its endangered species list.
More importantly, American wildlife officials also served notice earlier this year to several beluga-caviar nations that a ban would be instituted unless they each drew up management plans to protect the beluga sturgeon from extinction. The beluga can grow up to 4,000lbs and live a hundred years. The deadline for those plans to be completed and submitted for consideration by the United States had been set for 6 September and, so far, none have been received.
Environmental groups lobbied the US government this week to carry out its threat to ban caviar from the countries concerned, which are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan.
The plight of the beluga sturgeon was highlighted at a conference on the marine environment last month in Montreal, Canada. Delegates heard that the number of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, where they have flourished for nearly a quarter of a billion years, has plummeted 90 per cent in just 30 years. Most alarming was news from Kazakhstan that the farming of beluga caviar became impossible this year after fishermen were unable to find a single wild fertile female to provide the necessary eggs for the hatcheries. This is particularly worrying since Kazakstan is the only nation with a non-dammed river mouth into the Caspian basin, and should therefore provide the best environment for the fish.
The beluga sturgeon, which prefer brackish water and produce the sought-after black caviar roe, are known for their extraordinary fecundity. One fish can produce between 350,000 and seven million eggs a year. Yet in spite of that profusion of eggs, the fish appear to be in dire danger of disappearing.
"The beluga's rapid decline is due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, lack of effective governmental management and rampant illegal trade," according to Caviar Emptor, an advocacy group leading the fight to give the sturgeon new protection. The group is urging consumers to avoid buying beluga caviar, which can cost up to £2,000 per pound.
But the beluga sturgeon is not alone in swimming at the brink. "Other sturgeon are following in the footsteps of beluga," Ellen Pikitch of the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science, who was among those attending the Montreal conference in August, said. Numbers of stellate sturgeon in the Volga river, which also flows into the Caspian Sea, have also collapsed in recent years.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which would oversee any ban, says the problem is not restricted to the legal trade in beluga caviar. The sturgeons are also prey to an enormous illegal caviar industry, believed to be run by Mafia-style businesses. While legitimate trading in beluga caviar is worth some US$90m (£49m) a year, the black-market trade may be ten times larger.
Some of America's appetite for caviar - the word comes from the Persian khaviar, which means "bearing eggs" - is satisfied by domestic production, even if the quality is not the same. But even American species of sturgeon, such as the shovelnose found up and down the Mississippi river, are now in trouble.
"Basically, every sturgeon population in the world that has been subject to harvest for the caviar industry has been depleted," said Steve Eder, the fisheries administrator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which announced its own plans last month to curb US harvesting. The continuing crisis in the Caspian Sea, however, was highlighted in America when the highly exclusive San Francisco restaurant Jardiniere made headlines by refusing to serve beluga caviar to its customers. Some Manhattan restaurants have followed suit.
For caviar connoisseurs, the prospect of dinner without caviar from the beluga in the Caspian Sea - as well as the osetra and sevruga varieties - is almost unthinkable.
The first written reference to the delicacy comes from Batu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan) in 1242. The trading of caviar on a global scale took off when the French developed a taste for it in the 19th century and began importing it from Russia.
While the numbers of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea have dropped by half in just five years, experts say, there has been a similar, if not quite as dramatic, crisis in the Black Sea, where sturgeon numbers are thought to have fallen by about one fifth over the same period.
US officials appear to have given up hope that the Caspian Sea states may yet be persuaded to co-operate on a plan to save the sturgeon. Most important was the willingness of Kazakhstan, which is the biggest producer. The deadline has been missed, they say, and the rules cannot be repealed.
"The regulations call for a suspension of trade in this case, and Fish and Wildlife will be moving forward on a final action in the coming weeks," an official of the US Fish and Wildlife Service told yesterday's International Herald Tribune.
A guide to caviar
By Dan McKerrell
* Sturgeon can be found in three breeds indigenous to the Caspian Sea. Wild caviar extraction is restricted to March to April and September to October.
* Quality is determined by a grade from one to three. The grade is decided according to size, consistency, flavour and firmness. The latter is especially significant in grade three (or pressed) caviar, as it is comprised of the 35 per cent of the berries whose roe skins rupture prior to extraction.
* Beluga is considered the world's premiere caviar. It is the largest breed and provides the largest berries. They are firm and light grey.
* Osetra is the medium-sized sturgeon. Its caviar is a dark brown/grey colour and has a nutty flavour.
* Sevruga is the smallest and provides a fine grained, greenish-black roe.
* Salmon caviar is orange and is mainly harvested in Russia and Alaska. Tobiko, or flying fish caviar, is another orange variety, found in sushi.Reuse content