TED Case Studies
The Beluga Sturgeon: Caviar in danger?
CASE NUMBER: 484
CASE MNEMONIC: STURGEON
CASE NAME: STURGEON, CAVIAR, AND LOSS
1. The Issue
The issue at stake in this case study is the rapid depletion of the beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. Beluga eggs are considered by connoisseurs to be the the best caviar available. There are now far less sturgeon in the Caspian Sea than before, and this has been caused by an increased amount of poaching, overfishing, and pollution. Steady and even increasing global demand for caviar is responsible for considerable commercial crime, which in turn results in increasing policing and enforcement costs to Russia. In addition, these activities deplete this resource very quickly for the environment to adjust. As of 1996, the species has been labeled by the IUCN system as endangered. the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) passed a treaty in 1997 to control the trade of sturgeon products.
Caviar is a delicacy that many have come to appreciate. True caviar is the roe of any one of several species of sturgeon; roe from other fish, notably salmon, is also consumed as a delicacy. Caviar has been served as a delicacy as far back as the days of Persia, when the nobility began consuming it. From early on, it earned the status of fine food, and became very demanded. Techniques for breeding sturgeon in order to ensure a constant supply were developed, but were not successful in creating a large production base for caviar. Essentially, sturgeon produce better when left alone in their natural habitat. Yet, the spread of the delicacy across the world, as trade increased, led to a significant increase in the demand for sturgeon roe. In the course of the 20th century, with a great improvement in economic conditions, the development of middle classes in the Western world, and the expansion of global markets, sturgeon and caviar have become accessible to greater and greater numbers, thus sharply increasing demand for those products. The food which once was reserved to the aristocracy has now made its way to the tables of even the more deprived, who use it as a symbol of self-promotion. Unfortunately, this widening of the market has had some external consequences on "sturgeon-endowed" countries, more specifically Russia.
Sturgeon are encountered in many countries, notably Russia, from Siberia to the Volga river and the Caspian sea, Romania, and China. Connoisseurs recognize caviar from Caspian Sea sturgeon as the best, because of the quality of the eggs produced, which are darker, with a bigger grain. Caspian Sea sturgeon are categorized into three types:
|Partial map of Russia, Volga river and Caspian Sea.
The Beluga Sturgeon is the most rare of the three varieties from the Caspian Sea. It can live 100 years, grow to 30 feet in length, and weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. The female requires 20 years to mature and begin producing roe, and it produces the largest grained of the sturgeon caviars. The beluga is also found in the Black, Azov, and Adriatic Seas, as well as the Dnepr and Danube rivers.
The smaller Ossetra Sturgeon produces a smaller grained egg. Its caviar is noted for its nutty flavor and a color that varies from golden yellow to light brown.
The Sevruga Sturgeon produces the smallest grained caviar of the Caspian Sea sturgeons.
The beluga sturgeon, considered by far the producer of top quality caviar, has been considered a threatened species since 1996. The rapid perishing of the species has resulted mainly from illegal poaching, overfishing, and pollution of the Caspian Sea. Because of it also exists in other bodies of water, the beluga depletion also affects, to varying degrees, Romania and Hungary. The great demand for caviar worldwide has led to a draining of the species, and has led to poaching and the development of black markets where the illegal products are sold. Gangs consisting of bums and fugitive criminals who make their living by illegal sturgeon poaching live on small islands in the Delta. In 1994, 248 fugitives were caught by the police in that area; in 1995, this number was 280, and in 1996, it grew up to 623. In addition to the growing number of poachers in the Delta, riverguards are becoming increasingly corrupt as well; many cooperate with the poachers, preventing the police from arresting them, in some cases threatening the officials with machine guns.
Beluga is the most vulnerable to overfishing. Due to dam construction, it has lost almost all natural its spawning sites
and during the last few years beluga has not been restocked artificially in Russia due to a lack of wild breeders. The decrease in
commercial sturgeon species has increased the harvest of species which have not been caught commercially for caviar before.
The Sturgeon Specialist Group (SSG), created in 1994, and chaired by Dr. Vadim Berstein, undertook a study of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and Volga basin to assess the status of the species. As a result of the status evaluation of all sturgeon species, recommendations for the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals (attended by Dr. Birstein) were submitted by the SSG. The evaluation was discussed and approved at the workshop Marine Fish and the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals held in collaboration with WWF and IUCN at the Zoological Society of London in 1996. In addition to this study, Dr. Berstein, in collaboration with Dr. Rob DeSalle, developed a method of molecular for species identification of caviar; the SSG hopes that this new method will be used by governments to control and restrict the import of endangered sturgeon species, and more significantly the beluga.
History of caviar
This entire section is quoted from CaviarClub, written by Mark Bolourchi.
During the Middle Ages, Sturgeons were known as the
Royal Fish in England, and that is because King Edward
II decreed that any of it that was caught had to be given to
the Feudal Lords, but it is a well known fact that the
Persians were the first eaters of the tasty fish egg delicacy.
They called it Chav-Jar, which loosely translated to
"Cake of Power" also, they believed that Caviar cured a
variety of ailments. They would eat it regularly to improve
Aristotle also informs us that many lavish Greek
banquets would end with trumpet fanfare announcing the
arrival of heaping platters of caviar garnished with flowers.
According to André Launay in his book Caviare and
After, Rabelais (c 1490-1553) mentions caviar in his work
Faits et dits Heroiques du Grand Pantagruet (1553). He
calls it caviat. He also refers to la bottargue, a red mullet
roe product similar to caviar. La bottargue is the predecessor to today's Italian bottarga, the salted and air-dried
roe sack from the tuna, grey mullet or swordfish. Larousse
Gastronomique cites la Dictionnaire du Commerce(1741),
which with typical French reserve claimed that "kavia is
beginning to be known in France where it is not despised
at the best tables." French caviar production was organized by Louis XVI's minister Jean Baptiste Colbert in
the mid-18th century. Colbert placed his caviar headquarters on the Gironde, a major site of caviar production
at the time.
In Russia, the czars were the major caviar consumers.
Root tells us that Nicolas II taxed the sturgeon fishers
what amounted to a hefty 11 tons of top-grade caviar
every year. The caviar "given" to the czars was the rarest
and, at one time. the most cherished of all caviar - the
small golden eggs of the sterlet sturgeon. So insatiable
was the Russian nobility's passion for this golden caviar
that the species is all but extinct today.
Caviar was not always as rare or expensive as it is now.
In the United States at the turn of the century, caviar was
offered at taverns and saloons for the same reason that
peanuts are offered today: the saltiness encourages more
drinking. According to Stein, until 1900 the United States
produced about 150,000 pounds of caviar per year. Most
of this domestic caviar came from the Delaware River at
Penns Grove, New Jersey.
At one time, Hudson River sturgeon were so plentiful
that the flesh was referred to as "Albany beef" A nickel
could get you a serving of the best caviar available in New
York, and many of the most lavish establishments, including the Waldorf Astoria, offered free-flowing caviar
as an amuse-bouche opening to an elegant meal.
Caviar was also produced in impressive quantities in
the Gironde estuary region, the North Sea, the Baltic and
the Sea of Azov.
Root tells us that in 1899 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of
French caviar cost a mere 20 centimes. Just before World
War 1, 40 centimes bought the same kilogram, putting the
price of caviar just slightly higher than that of bread.
Apocryphal stories about the developmentof the caviar
production process abound. It is known that most of the
early consumers of sturgeon discarded the eggs. There are
tales of Caspian pirated and serendipitous accidents.
Regardless of its origins, however, caviar production has
evolved into a precise and delicate procedure. This painstaking process is one factor that maintains the elevated
price of caviar today.
Sturgeon are caught in large nets set by fisher-men and
guided to the shore by boats and winches. When a female
sturgeon of egg-bearing age is caught in a net, it is stunned
by a blow to the head with a wooden
club. Back on shore, the fish is stunned
a second time before it is taken to the
processing room. A precise incision is
cut in the belly of the fish and the egg
sack is removed whole. In Russia, the
eggs are removed before the fish dies; in
Iran, the fish is killed before the roe is
Once the egg sack is freed from the
cavity of the fish, it is placed over a large
wire grate. The eggs are gently passed
back and forth over this "sieve" to separate berries of different sizes. The eggs,
which are collected in a metal tin, are
then rinsed with fresh water to remove
any debris. Once they are cleaned, the
master salt blender will come to classify
and salt the eggs. Size and color are
taken into account for the classification.
Color designations range from 000 for
the lightest caviar, to 00 for medium-
dark caviar, to a 0 for the darkest and
most rich-looking caviar.
Next,the master blender decides how
to salt the eggs. The finest of the lot will
be treated as malossol (literally, "little
star)", which means that not more than
five percent by weight of salt will be
added to the eggs. The malossol caviar
is the most delicate in flavor and also the
most perishable. (The low salt content limits the amount of time the caviar can
be stored.) It is, therefore, also the most
expensive. Other caviar will have
varying amounts of salt, depending on
the quality of the eggs and the final
Not just any salt can be added to the
eggs. Before 1914, Stein tells us, that salt
used came from the seas of the Astrakhan
Steppe in Russia. To remove the excess
chlorine, this Astrakhan salt was stored in
a dry room for seven years. Today, the sea
salt originates from the mouths of many
different rivers in Russia. It is chemically
purified and free of iodine. Recently, Iran
began purchasing Russian salt in order to
ensure that the quality of their final product
is as consistent as Russia's.
The salt acts both as a preservative and
as a curing agent on the caviar. Raw caviar
is almost without texture. After the salt
"curing," however, the eggs become more
firm. Borax is added to the caviar destined
for Europe at the same time as the salt.
Borax is a naturally occurring
compound (Na2B407. 1OH20) that gives
the caviar a softer and sweeter finish.
Much to the North American caviar
connoisseurs dismay, borax is an illegal
food additive in the United States. Thus,
the caviar available here contains only salt
and fish roe.
Once the salt is evenly distributed, the
caviar is passed over a very fine mesh to
remove any excess liquid. The finished
caviar is packed into the familiar lacquer-
coated tins and sealed with elastic bands to
be shipped to a distributor. The caviar may
also be pasteurized and packaged in jars if
it is to remain in storage for long periods of
time. According to most aficionados, the
pasteurization process drastically changes
the flavor of the finished caviar.
Any eggs that are broken or over-
mature are processed in a slightly different way to produce pressed caviar, or
pajusnaya. Pressed caviar is a thick,
marmalade-like caviar that is, according
to Stein, the type of caviar preferred
by the Russians and most prized by the
Greeks. To make the pressed caviar, the
less desirable eggs are gathered in
cheesecloth and placed in a machine
that compresses the cheesecloth sack
on all sides. The excess liquid runs off and the thick
pajusnaya caviar remains.
By law in the United States and France, any product referred to simply as caviar must come from the eggs of the sturgeon (family Acipenseridae). Traditionally, the roe from four species of sturgeon is considered to produce the best caviar: the Beluga, osetra, sevruga and sterlet. Each of these species calls the Caspian Sea its home. Although sterlet, which produces a small-grained golden caviar was at one time considered the finest available, the species is now very close to extinction, the sterlet caviar is almost never seen. Beluga, which is the largest of the sturgeon family, produces large, loose, glistening black to steel grey berries. It is considered the finest available. Osetra (also known as ossetra, ocetrina, ossetrina, ossetrova and estrova) ranges from brown to golden. The berries are slightly smaller than the Beluga caviar. Some consider the taste of osetra to be more distinct, almost nutty. Many prefer the stronger character of the osetra over the subtlety of the Beluga. Sevruga caviar (also spelled chivrouga), the fourth variety, has the smallest berries. It has the strongest flavor and is perhaps the most readily available. It is also the least expensive of the imported caviar.
The increasing rarity of the Caspian sturgeon is the second major factor contributing to the high cost of caviar. After centuries of intensive fishing and mass industrialization, the stock of fish available in the Caspian Sea has greatly diminished. According to Stein, about 90 percent of the world's caviar comes from this one sea. While the sea has a surface area of approximately 169,000 square miles, all of the sturgeon is bred in an area of no larger than 1,000 acres near the mouth of the Volga river. The water level has been decreasing every year as a result of increased industrialization in the area, and now much of the spawning territory has dried up.
The production of caviar peaked in 1936 at 2,300 tons and sank to fewer than 600 tons in the early '70s. Since then the level has been increasing thanks to advancements in fishing breeding technology. Hundreds of millions of sturgeon fingerlings have been released into the sea to help restock the fish, but the dangerously low water levels are an almost insurmountable problem.
Faced with the exorbitant cost and increasing rarity of Caspian caviar, many other varieties of high-quality caviar are being produced. There are five common types of American sturgeon, the most common of which is referred as the spoonbill, shovel-nose cat or paddlefish. When processed correctly, the American sturgeon roe produces a caviar that is considered excellent. The fish is found principally in the Mississippi-Missouri River system, extending as far north as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; as far east as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana. The producers in Louisiana, Tennessee are achieving the best results.
Alas, the caviar process is not reserved solely for the eggs from the ancient and mighty sturgeon. Roe from trout, whitefish, salmon, hackleback and lumpfish is processed in much the same way with varying degrees of skill, quality and success. The eggs of the Japanese flying fish produce a golden-orange, crunchy caviar called tobiko. Keluga is an expensive Chinese caviar. When the term caviar is used for one of these "alternative" caviars, it must be qualified by the species of the fish. Thus, lumpfish caviar must always be referred to as such.
Fresh and pasteurized caviar should be stored between 26.5* and 32*. Once opened, caviar should be consumed within one week. Assuming the distributor has handled the caviar correctly, an unopened tin of fresh caviar can be stored for two to three weeks. Pasteurized caviar should hold for to three or four months prior to opening.
There are two schools of thought about the proper way to serve caviar. Subscribers to one school, the purists, believe that the only accompaniment to any fine caviar is a lightly toasted piece of bread spread with a faint film of sweet butter. Anything strong enough to mask the subtle flavor of the row-including egg, onion, sour cream and creme fraiche - is considered blasphemous. Some purists will accept a squirt of fresh lemon juice. Others wouldn't dare. Choosing a drink is easy for these simpletons; the choice is limited to a shot of frozen vodka or a flute of iced champagne. After you've tried the row in this conservative way, it is hard to argue that there is anything wrong with these combinations except that they lack imagination.
But the second school of caviar lovers, the adventurers, take a more typically American approach to caviar consumption. These afficionados concoct anything from Christopher Gross' sea bean soup with scallops and osetra caviar at Christopher's in Phoenix, black bean sauce at Mark's Place in Miami, Florida. Jean Louis Palladin surrounds belon oysters with caviar butter and Beluga caviar, then breads and fries the whole thing to make what resembles a glorified Scotch egg, at Jean Louis at the Watergate in Washington, D.C. San Domenico in New York City serves hand-made combed quill-shaped pasta with caviar and asparagus points. Julian Serrano from Masa's in San Francisco, California, offers a gallette of large Minnesota wild rice with Beluga caviar.
Innovative uses for fish eggs are not limited to our continent, however, Gualtiero Marchesi, of the Michelin three-star restaurant of the same name in Milan, Italy, raises pasta salad to new heights with his "insalata di spaghetti al caviale, erba cipollina,' a chilled spaghetti and chive salad liberally garnished with a glistening dollop of osetra caviar. And even Fredy Girardet at his Michelin three-star restaurant in Crissier, Switzerland, adds to the canon of creative caviar lore with dishes like "court-bouillon d'ecrevisses a l'aneth au Beluga," a bouillon of crayfish with dill and Beluga caviar.
Respecting a few simple rules will ensure a pleasant caviar experience for you and your guests. First, be sure to purchase caviar from a reputable distributor you know and trust. Because of its strong ties to former Cold War enemies, the caviar business often teeters on the fine line between diplomacy and espionage. Numerous spy stories have been told about clandestine midnight shipments of roe or secret meetings on third-party, neutral territory. If your distributor is not reputable, there is no way to guarantee the quality of the original product or that it was transported and stored correctly.
Second, make sure that caviar is stored and used correctly once at your facility. Store the unopened cans in a refrigerated space. Do not handle the caviar with any objects made of metal that easily oxidizes, such as silver or inexpensive stainless steel. When the metal comes into contact with the caviar, it may impart a metallic taste. Use plastic, glass or wood to handle the caviar in the kitchen. Traditionally, gold or mother-of-pearl palettes or spoons are used to eat the delicate berries in the dining room. They are as much for show as they are to ensure that the caviar is not ruined by exposure to an oxidized metal utensil. Use all opened caviar within one week.
Third, if caviar is going to be incorporated into a dish, make sure its flavor is not overpowered by the other ingredients. Do not cook caviar or it will toughen and become extremely unappetizing. To be safe add the caviar toward the end of a preparation or as a last minute garnish.
In the end, if you have chosen to serve caviar, be sure there is enough for the guests to get a mouthful, especially that one coming from Azerbaijan because I think it is the finest caviar in the world.
This entire section was quoted from CaviarClub, written by Mark Bolourchi.
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a. Trade Product: Beluga Sturgeon
b. Bio-geography: Caspian Sea
c. Environmental Problem: Species Depletion (also pollution)
4. Draft Author: Martin Messier - May 5th, 1998
5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and In Progress
From June 9 to June 20, 1997, took place the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Zimbabwe. The various measures they have agreed to implement came into effect on April 1st, 1998.
6. Forum and Scope: Russia and Multilateral
8. Legal Standing: Treaty
The 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora (CITES) took part in Harare (Zimbabwe) from 9 to
20 June 1997. The Parties voted for a joint German and American
proposal for listing all acipenseriform species on the CITES
Appendix II (which controls trade in sturgeons and their
products). The resolution recommends the following:
a) that Parties should provide the CITES Secretariat with
copies of applicable legislation on CITES;
b) that range States should inform the Secretariat about legal
exporters of sturgeon parts and derivatives;
c) that importing countries should be particularly vigilant in
controlling the uploading of sturgeon products;
d) that Parties should ensure that all relevant agencies
within a Party cooperate on the necessary organization,
scientific, and control mechanisms needed to implement the
sturgeon listing, and any projects designed to conserve sturgeon
e) that Parties should consider the harmonization of their
national legislation related to personal exemptions for caviar
(no more than 250 g per person);
f) that range States of sturgeon species included in Appendix
II should consider the feasibility of developing annual export
quotas of sturgeon products and communicate such quotas to the
g) that Parties should monitor the storage, processing and
re-conditioning of sturgeon products in Customs free zones and
free ports, and from airline and cruise line catering;
h) that the CITES Secretariat, in consultation with the
Animals Committee, should explore the development of a uniform
marking system for sturgeon products and aquaculture stocks to
assist in subsequent identification of these species;
i) that Parties immediately endorse the consideration of the
trade in sturgeon products by the Animals Committee.
The implementation of the resolution took effect on
April 1st, 1998.
9. Geographic Locations
a. Geographic Domain: Europe
b. Geographic Site: Eastern Europe
c. Geographic Impact: Russia
10. Sub-National Factors: No
11. Type of Habitat: Ocean
12. Type of Measure: Regulatory Standard
Parties signing the international agreement should monitor the storage, processing and re-conditioning of sturgeon products in Customs free zones and free ports, and from airline and cruise line catering. There were discussions of implementing quotas, personal exemption restrictions for the import of caviar, and regulatory standards, but no legislation has been passed in those areas (see CITES).
13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Direct
Measures in this case are clearly direct. The treaty attempts to limit the trade of sturgeon products.
14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact
a. Directly Related to Product: Sturgeon and Sturgeon Products
The legislation in question directly relates to the restriction of sturgeon products.
b. Indirectly Related to Product: No
c. Not Related to Product: No
d. Related to Process: Yes, Species Loss Sea
15. Trade Product Identification: Sturgeon and Sturgeon Products
The product in question is the sturgeon, and sturgeon products, in raw, intermediary, or in final stages of production. The measures to be implemented through CITES will seek to monitor the trade of sturgeon products in custom-free zones. The other suggested measures would also involve a control of caviar, a by-product of the sturgeon.
16. Economic Data
The beluga is so rare that the annul beluga catch seldom exceeds 100 units. For that reason, it is extremely valuable. A normal specimen weighs around 880 lbs, but it can go up to 1,800 lbs, and it yields about 15% of its weight in caviar.
The cost-benefit analysis elements are as follows:
Weight of a sturgeon: 1,800 pounds
Price of a pound of beluga sturgeon at Fresh Fields: $11.99
Price of 2 ounces (.15 lbs) of beluga caviar at Fresh Fields: $69
Amount of caviar produced by a sturgeon: 132 lbs
Based on this information, the cost of the meat from the sturgeon would be US$ 21,582. Added to the value of caviar produced by the sturgeon, US$ 9,108, the total benefit of selling beluga sturgeon products coming from one sturgeon is approximately US$ 30,690. There is thus an incredible incentive to engage in illegal fishing since returns are so high.
17. Impact of Trade Restriction: MEDIUM
Even though the measures implemented are ones of monitoring, and that there is no tariff involved, the trade of sturgeon will suffer a relatively important impact; the sheer fact that there will be closer attention paid to the trade of sturgeon products will turn it into an "underground" trade, with increased smuggling, black markets, etc.
18. Industry Sector: Food
19. Exporters and Importers: Russia and Many
20. Environmental Problem Type: Species Loss Sea
The main problem, easily identifiable in this case, is the rapid depletion of the beluga in the seas and rivers of Eastern Europe. Over-fishing has been an important problem in the case of the beluga; due to the high revenue that can be generated by the sales of belugas and beluga products, much illegal fishing has taken place in the Caspian Sea. Moreover, poachers set up dams to intercept belugas. On top of depleting the species, dams aggravate pollution conditions of the Caspian Sea. This second problem, though not the most important for this case since other factors are involved, is notable, as it may affect other species in a near future. Causes of pollution are industrial outpours into the Caspian Sea, and byproducts of the fishing industry.
21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species
Name: Giant sturgeon or beluga
Diversity: Huso huso
IUCN status: ENDANG
22. Resource Impact and Effect: High and Product
23. Urgency and Lifetime: 100 years
24. Substitutes: LIKE
Substitutes do exist for the beluga. As previously mentioned, there are two other species of sturgeon that exist in the Caspian Sea and the Volga River Basin, the Ossega and the Sevruga. Yet, they'll eventually become endangered too if illegal fishing and poaching continue as they have existed until today. On the other hand, salmon also produces roe that can be used as a substitute for beluga caviar. Farming has been tested for the beluga, but its long lifespan and large size make it difficult to manage. It could be compared to breeding whales.
25. Culture: Yes
Culture plays a significant role in the beluga problem; caviar is both a symbol of wealth and cultural refinement in the west. Since the people that live in the Americas have developed a consumeristic way of life, the way to display one's wealth is to purchase the most expensive goods on the market. Beluga, as the most expensive species of sturgeon, fulfills this role for the conspicuous consumers. Thus, regardless of trade restrictions, the consumers create the opportunity for a black market, and consequently, more criminal fishing and poaching.
26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No
27. Rights: No
28. Relevant Literature
Bolourchi, Mark. "Caviar, The Perfect Pearls of Nature."
Caviar & Caviar, Ltd., Maryland. Tel: 301-881-4912
"We need the eggs." The New Yorker, September 30, 1996, p.36-38.
The Sturgeon Society: This website links to various other resources on Sturgeons.
Romanoff Caviar: This website discusses and sells caviar.
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