looming caviar shortage is threatening to take some of the glitz out of millennium parties as fish-egg prices soar and Russian production slumps.
The best black caviar, from sturgeon caught mainly in the Caspian Sea, is the hors d'oeuvre of choice of the rich and famous. It is growing increasingly scarce as poaching, pollution and disappearing spawning grounds take their toll on the Caspian's sturgeon population.
"It's almost critical,'' said Martin dams, executive vice-president for North merica at Paris-based Petrossian, the biggest caviar importer to the US. "It's frustrating. Demand will dramatically increase because of the millennium, and here we are with a lot less supply.''
Russian producers and foreign importers have raised prices by as much as 45 per cent this year, as demand from millennium revellers is expected to surge while the supply from the Caspian Sea declines.
Geneva-based Caviar House, with 40 gourmet food shops worldwide, estimates that worldwide demand is at about 350 tons, but only about 200 tons is available - about 110 tons of that from Russia. s prices rise, "caviar is more comparable to diamonds than simply food", said Thierry Uldry, managing director of Caviar House.
Russkaya Ikra, one of Russia's largest producers, said its exports would drop to about eight tons this year from 15 tons last year.
"We've seen a big drop in supply this year,'' said Vyacheslav Mironov, director at Russkaya Ikra. "We hope to make up the fall in production through the increase in prices.''
n ounce of Beluga caviar rose to about $75 (pounds 48) this year, from about $55 last year, Mr dams said.
The biggest drop in sales will probably be to airlines, which purchase about 50 per cent of the world supply for first-class passengers. Still, that drop in demand will be offset by a 40 per cent increase in retail demand expected in the fourth quarter for New Year's parties, according to Mr Uldry.
"We won't reach the quota for production this year due to poor weather conditions and supply problems,'' said Yuri Kokoryev, deputy director of the Russian ssociation of Fish Exporters and Producers.
Government officials are more optimistic, though no one in the industry agrees with their assessment.
"This year we plan to export 162 tons of black caviar, worth $35m to $40m,'' said Nikolai Yermakov, director of the State Fisheries Committee. "We are losing our position in the market.''
He said Russia exported about 168 tons last year, while other officials in the State Fisheries Committee put the figure at about 120 tons.
The Russian government also decreased caviar production after a quota on sturgeon catches was imposed in pril last year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
Cites reduced Russia's export quota for beluga caviar this year to 3,000 kilograms, from 5,000 kilograms last year.
"We will initially suffer commercially because of the quotas,'' Mr dams said. "In the long term, though, they will save the industry. We have to save it.''
Russia is also increasing controls on poaching, which has illegally harvested as much as 100 tons of caviar annually, to secure the renewal of the sturgeon population.
"If this comes through, it will really solve a huge problem,'' Mr Uldry said.
Depending on the variety of sturgeon, a fish must survive for about seven to 20 years before it begins producing eggs.
The three main species of sturgeon are Sevruga, Osetra and Beluga, the most expensive and largest sturgeon which weighs up to one ton and can live for up to 300 years. Caviar from the Beluga sturgeon, with some living up to 300 years, is packed in Russia's trademark blue can sealed with a red rubber band.
Russian caviar competes against other caviar produced from the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland sea, in Iran, Kazakhstan, and zerbaijan, and in Chinese rivers northeast of Mongolia. Still, a US trade embargo against Iran boosts demand for caviar from the former Soviet Union.