Like a large-carat diamond ring and expensive champagne in a crystal glass, caviar is a status symbol, signifying that you've achieved a level of wealth and success. Unfortunately it's also a symbol of how greed can cause depletion of a species. So is it even possible for a delicacy like caviar to be sustainable? As always, it depends on your definition, but several companies are giving it a try.
The Status of Sturgeon
True caviar was traditionally considered to only be the salted eggs from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian and Black Seas, but now sturgeon from other locations are included in the category. Eggs from other fish like salmon and paddlefish might be called "caviar" but they are technically considered "salmon roe" or "paddlefish roe."
Sturgeon populations have dwindled globally, due partly to caviar's popularity as a luxury food item, and many locations now have strict catch limits or even bans. Unfortunately this has created a big market for caviar from illegally-caught sturgeon and has driven people to go to great lengths to smuggle caviar. Other reasons for the population decline include water pollution and loss of habitat from river dams that prevent the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Many species of sturgeon are on the endangered species list.
Farm-Raised Sturgeon and Sustainable Caviar
To take pressure off of dwindling wild sturgeon populations, there are companies in 20 countries (including the US in Florida and North Carolina) that farm sturgeon. In the vast majority of cases, eggs are removed after killing the fish. It's a long-term investment because it can take up to eight years for the fish to mature and reach spawning age, and proponents say that relying on farmed fish is more ecologically sound.
Other companies have tried a more lasting approach by rearing the fish until they're ready to spawn, then, after removing the eggs via C-section, sewing the fish back up and rearing them for more production. The process is very hard on the fish and has been banned in several countries.
A New Method: No-Kill Caviar
A German company called Vivace goes one step further and says they can sustainably grow good tasting caviar without killing the fish. Vivace claims that once the farmed sturgeon are raised to maturity, the eggs can be massaged out of females that are ready to spawn. Angela Köhler, the German scientist who developed the process, was inspired after she witnessed the waste involved in caviar production on a tour of a sturgeon farm in Iran. Köhler says in an interview with NPR that her new massage method "could help reduce demand for black market caviar and save endangered wild sturgeon from being hunted to extinction."
The next time you're about to reach for a mother of pearl spoon to serve up some of that salty goodness onto your cracker, ask a few questions first about where that caviar came from and, if you're doing the serving, seek out more sustainable caviar producers to treat your guests. To get yourself into the proper frame of mind, maybe get a massage first.