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Caviar Cachet

Once Plentiful and Cheap, the Sturgeon Roe Craved by Czars Increases in Demand as the Politics of Procurement Become More Byzantine
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

Caviar was not always the stuff of dreams. Once it was a reality of everyday life. In nineteenth-century Russia, caviar was so abundant that "people used to clarify their soups with it," says Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian and Russian literature at Williams College. "People talk about 'mounds of caviar' even in the Stalin years."

The United States was no slouch when it came to caviar consumption, either. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sturgeon in the Hudson and Delaware rivers produced so much caviar that it was sold for a penny a pound and given away in bars (after liberal salting) to entice patrons to drink more beer.

Alas, due to overfishing the American caviar boom went bust around 1910, though it is making a comeback of sorts. And what's happening in Russia? That's a good question, the answer to which no one seems to know for sure, because the fate of Caspian Sea sturgeon roe--the only true caviar--is heavily mired in politics, frontier-style capitalism, and an increasing concern about the environment. "No one knows for sure what's going on, including the governments--especially the governments," says M. David Magnotta, the owner of Caviar Russe, a restaurant, bar and retail store, and the managing director of Caspian Star Caviar, an importer and wholesaler in New York.

Despite its name, the Caspian Sea is a huge lake, bounded on three sides by Russia and several other nations that belonged to the former Soviet Union. To the south lies Iran.

Dealing with Iran is the easy part: we don't. The U.S .government has had a long-standing embargo on Iranian products, including caviar. Iranian caviar goes mainly to Europe, where it may wind up in American hands by hook or by crook, but that's a minor detail. Russian caviar--or perhaps more accurately, former Soviet Union caviar--is what we see in the United States. You may have heard some people wistfully reminiscing about the good old U.S.S.R.? One reason to recall it fondly is the way the Soviets handled the caviar trade: with an iron fist. "It was a monopoly," Magnotta says. "Whatever they wanted to sell you, they could, and at whatever price they wanted."

While everything from production to distribution to price was strictly controlled, at least you knew where you stood. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were almost as many caviar dealers as there were fish eggs. Some were legitimate; some weren't. And sometimes you didn't discover this until you opened a tin of caviar.

Poaching and overfishing became rampant because there was no single authority to control it. Russia had more important things to worry about, such as the renegade Chechnya province and former Soviet republics, such as Dagestan, which hated the Russians, their former masters, with a passion. "There is tremendous contraband," Goldstein says. "Russia is more concerned about arms than caviar."

"It's a Wild, Wild West out there," says Craig Hoover, program officer for TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) North America, which monitors trading in wildlife for the World Wildlife Fund. As a result of this free-for-all, caviar production has declined, but how far is in dispute, since no one seems to have hard numbers. The closest one can get is by studying the data on world sturgeon catch published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, which, Hoover admits, "are a bit suspect." These figures show 26,538 metric tons in 1984 and 13,562 metric tons in 1994. Even more startling are figures that show the Soviet Union with 24,245 metric tons in 1984 and the Commonwealth of Independent States (which includes all the former Soviet republics) with 5,422 metric tons in 1994.

These numbers, however, don't always reflect the reality of what is available to consumers. More caviar may have existed before communism came tumbling down, but because the Soviets controlled supplies, it wasn't as widely accessible, nor was it offered at the kinds of prices we've seen in the past eight years. When Goldstein visited Russia in the summer of 1997, she had more fresh caviar than she's ever had, albeit surreptitiously. "It was never on display. But if you knew where to go, there was plenty of it," she says. "The 'new' Russians [capitalists who have made a killing in the free market] are eating it like crazy."

Into this Wild West has come a Wyatt Earp of sorts, prepared to clean up Dodge City. The new law in town is CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In June 1997, in a proposal put forward by the United States and Germany, CITES agreed to list sturgeon as an Appendix Two fish, which means that it was threatened with endangerment by commerce. Thus, CITES required that as of April 1998, all sturgeon and sturgeon products, such as caviar, must have a permit when being traded commercially. This declares that the exporting country has legally harvested and exported the product. And it certifies that harvesting and trade are not detrimental to the overall animal population.

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