Some people think fish eggs are just that and should be left to the fish, strictly for the purpose of making new fish. For others, no cost is too high to pay for fish roe in its role as caviar, that elegant snack that symbolizes luxury, sales of which skyrocket at holiday time.
And for the latter folks, Browne Trading Company on Commercial St. in Portland is ready, willing and able to supply their holiday needs — despite a global ban on the most prized beluga caviar and the shrinking of the world’s supply of other good caviars taken from wild-caught fish.
“I have about another week of sanity,” said Nick Branchina, marketing director for Browne Trading in mid-November. “Then it will be just crazy until after New Year’s. Demand for caviar at holiday time is astronomical compared to the rest of the year.”
Overfishing, particularly of prized species, threatened for many years to sink the caviar industry. Fortunately, although the ills of overfishing and poaching increased, and while prices soared and supplies dwindled, farming of the slow-growing sturgeon took off around the world.
“It takes between five and 12 years for sturgeon to grow to breeding age, so farmers have to count backwards and think about a long-term investment,” said Branchina, adding the species that have proved easiest to farm are California white sturgeon, Siberian and ocetra.
It’s a good thing for the caviar industry that farmers in Europe and the Middle East planned ahead, because in 2004 the United Nations
Commission on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which controls the caviar trade, placed a total ban on fishing for and trade in the most highly prized caviar from beluga sturgeon.
“Farmed sturgeon is a wonderful thing. It takes the pressure off the wild stocks,” said Rod Browne Mitchell, latest generation of the family to run Browne Trading. “The only wild caviar in the world that can be harvested this year is Iranian.”
This year CITES banned all but the harvest of black-nosed asetra (similar to ocetra, but spelled differently in the North and South for some unknown reason, explains Branchina) sturgeon by Turkey, because that country had taken measures to protect the fish.
Other Caspian and Black Sea fisheries had no protections, so all harvests were banned, but poaching is a fact of life in the world of caviar, particularly in cash-hungry former Soviet countries. Science magazine said Caspian nations caught 760 tons of sturgeon in 2004, down from 26,600 tons in 1985.
“Most of the caviar in the country has been brought in illegally,” said Edward Grace in 2002. Grace is the special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service who investigated a smuggling and mislabeling case against the president of Caspian Sea Caviar. The New York-based company had once handled 60 percent of the caviar imported into the U.S.
That same year, the interior minister of Russia estimated the “shadow” caviar market at $400 million, all due to poaching. And Sal Amato, another special agent with Fish and Wildlife, said the odds of being cheated when buying caviar four years ago were 90 to 1. Between 2000 and 2002, Amato said nearly 20 companies had been convicted of import violations, but “the market is still rife with black market caviar.”
Two years later, the year of the beluga ban, not much had changed, according to a Russian envoy who spoke at a conference on coordination of efforts to protect the resources of the Black, Caspian and Azov seas. Vladimir Yakovlev told the conference that research data showed the sturgeon population in those seas “in a state of biological depression.” Even Russian President Vladimir Putin attested in 2004 that nearly 80 percent of the entire Russian fish trade is illegal, particularly the caviar trade.
Stocks of the various sturgeons had tanked in the previous 15 years, 34 times for sevruga, 15 times for beluga, and 58 times for ocetra. Yakovlev said blamed the downturns entirely on poaching, which he said supplies 90 percent of the black caviar on the market, saying the proceeds from caviar poaching compare to the illegal sales of arms and narcotics. And even worse, he said, “poachers are being protected by those who are supposed to fight against them.”
The U.S. made the import of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea illegal in September 2005 because the Caspian countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan failed to file a joint management plan for the endangered beluga sturgeon. At the time, it sold in the U.S. for a high of more than $5,000 per kilo, down to $250 a kilo in Baku, the major production center.
In the early 1990s, CITES reported, Russian scientists said illegal catches of beluga — more than 10 times the legal catches — meant between 60 percent and 100 percent of beluga swimming up the Ural river are caught before they spawn, explaining why stocks dropped there 90 percent during the past 20 years. Since sturgeon must be killed to remove the eggs, the slow-growing beluga are particularly susceptible to overfishing.
The people at Browne Trading can attest that being honest and above board in the caviar industry is not easy,
“Being compliant is difficult. The paper trail is amazing,” said Branchina. “Fortunately, we have the legal wild caviar available here because we’re the best at what we do, and the relationship have been in place to buy it for many years.”
Connoisseurs believe beluga is the tastiest caviar and usually handle the precious commodity with a spoon made of mother of pearl, bone or another non-metallic material.
Sources say the beluga may take 20 years to reach egg-producing maturity, and the fish from which the roe is taken often weigh nearly 2,000 pounds, with the eggs ranging in color from light blue to black. Fish can live to be 100 years old and 30 feet long.
At the moment, the largest farm in the world is in Italy. Browne carries that Italian farm’s brand, Calvisius, “the original caviar malossol.”
Farmed species emerged as a viable alternative at the right time. By the time of the beluga ban in 2004, several countries were producing commercial quantities of good caviar. The quality and the quantity have increased since then.
“We import seven or eight varieties, predominately from Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and France,” said Branchina. “This holiday season, prices have gone up because quality and demand have also gone up. The farmed product was good to begin with, and it’s improving rapidly.”
“In 2004, wild caviar was still affordable. We had enough to supply people and they were willing to pay. But it’s much tighter this year than even last year for wild product,” Branchina said. And next year’s wild harvest won’t be known until CITES announces it around March. Wild harvests usually happen in spring and fall, but the spring harvest might not reach Portland, Maine, until summer or even fall.
“Properly handled and temperature-controlled, caviar will last a year,” said Branchina. “But not in the home refrigerator where we’re opening the door all the time to get milk.”
Sturgeon eggs are sorted by size and color, with the bigger ones costing more and the rarer colors adding to that cost. This year, good caviar will cost the retail buyer around $200 for just a little more than an ounce.
“The large, golden eggs will cost more, around $270 for the same amount,” explained Branchina. “They’re an anomaly that occurs in nature among the eggs that are more often gray or brown.”
Some gourmets say the golden eggs taste better, but Branchina said it takes an awfully good palate to recognize any difference. Mostly, the higher price is based on the way the golden fish eggs look and their rarity.
Sterling’s Struffenegger said a few years ago, farmers were begging people to take farmed caviar seriously, but “now there’s worldwide interest and millions being spent just to meet demand.”
Browne Trading is arguably the biggest caviar dealer in Maine, perhaps New England, but the company’s trade is not limited to the spawn of the sturgeon. Browne has a smokehouse producing smoked black cod, organic Irish salmon, Scottish salmon, sturgeon, rainbow trout, scallops and Maine shrimp.
“It’s a pretty big line,” said Branchina. But a large part of the business is supplying high-quality fresh fish to 4-star and 5-star restaurants, primarily in New York.
The family-owned company has been in business in New England for several generations. Rod Browne Mitchell and his wife Cynde are the current owners.
“We try to get them anything they want. Rod (Mitchell) began working with a French chef years ago, trying to get him things he couldn’t find on the American market,” said Branchina. “We buy Maine and New England species, but we also import from France and Portugal. On any given day, we will have 30 to 40 species in house.”