American caviar industry hopes for a ban on beluga
Blocking the pricey Caspian product would boost sales for U.S. producers.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The small but growing American caviar industry is hoping for a boost from federal authorities, who are considering a halt to trade of the priciest caviar from the Caspian Sea.
The ban would block imports of beluga caviar -- mouth-watering eggs from the Caspian's largest sturgeon, a 250 million-year-old species that has been ravaged by overfishing and pollution.
The deadline for a ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is Saturday, according to spokeswoman Pat Fisher. The agency has given no indication yet which way it will go.
While beluga importers hope it won't happen, some American producers believe a ban could open up new markets for the eggs they harvest from such fish as white sturgeon in the West and shovelnose sturgeon and paddlefish in the South and Midwest.
"I'm sure our business will increase," said John Burke, whose Louisiana Caviar Co. makes its Cajun Caviar with eggs from fish called bowfin, or choupiquet, in the Atchafalaya River.
Many aficionados of the best caviar scoff at the notion of turning to the American product, which is cheaper. Some varieties sell for $13 per ounce, compared to $90 for top beluga.
You get what you pay for, they contend, believing that none of the American varieties have the complex, rich flavor of Caspian eggs.
"American caviar is good, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Caspian counterpart," said Eve Vega, executive director of New York-based Petrossian Inc., a major Caspian caviar seller.
Vega believes that, if a ban is ordered, true caviar lovers, and their suppliers, will take a step down to the Caspian's other, lower priced varieties: osetra and sevruga. They won't go near the American stuff, she said.
Begs to differ
Stoltz Sea Farm, the biggest U.S. producer, begs to disagree. Chuck Edwards, marketing manager for the Sacramento, Calif.-based company, says its farm-raised white sturgeon eggs, sold as Sterling Caviar, are on a par with osetra and sevruga in both price and quality.
The company sold about six tons of the eggs last year, and its egg production has risen nearly every year since it began selling in the mid-1980s, he said. He said the company does not yet make a profit, mainly because female white sturgeon must be at least eight years old before they can produce eggs. He declined to say when the company would be profitable.
Stoltz's parent company, London-based Stolt-Nielsen SA, a shipping, transportation and seafood company, declined to release revenue figures for its Sacramento sturgeon farm.
No one tracks overall industry production.
U.S. varieties have earned a place at many upscale restaurants around the country. Burke's clients in New Orleans include the famed Commander's Palace and the restaurants of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
Tory McPhail, executive chef at Commander's, said he's refused to serve imported caviar for years.
"American caviar is cleaner, fresher, and it has as wide a range or wider than anything you get out of the Caspian," McPhail said. "Serving local caviar is the best way I know of to really swank up a meal."
A coalition of environmental groups known as Caviar Emptor petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare beluga a U.S. endangered species, which would lead to a ban.
The group's studies found a 90 percent decline in the Caspian beluga population over 20 years. The United States imports about 60 percent of the product, said Ellen Pikitch, a University of Miami marine biologist who led the research.