Copyright | May 6, 2022
Dr. David Stephen is an aquaculture scientist and developer whose involvement with commercial sturgeon farming for caviar production began in 2001 in California.
A Tale of Two Caviars – Caviar and No-kill Caviar
By David Stephen
Happy caviar comes from happy sturgeons. Happy sturgeons come from state-of-the-art Controlled Environment Aquaculture (CEA) facilities. Here, water recirculating technologies provide better living conditions for sturgeons and are environmentally sustainable. For example, the Marshallberg Farm in North Carolina and Sterling Caviar in California. Daily operations follow best practices that are a cut above the industry. No other aquaculture species operation compares with sturgeon. While others grow table-size fish (restaurant parlance for dinner plate size), here sturgeons are the size of tables when harvested for caviar. It takes six to ten years or more depending on the species to reach first puberty and develop eggs. This means nurturing from birth and harvesting in the most humane way possible. Their daily welfare is of utmost importance to the final product they create for discerning patrons. Such diligent practices create a product that is more than just caviar, it embodies the spirit of sturgeons, the compassion of caretakers, and the passion of product developers. This is how the “happy” gets infused into caviar. Caviar should be a hearty experience because if it is not, why partake of it?
It is in this context – the sensuous nature of caviar, that the sturgeon to caviar entrepreneur must decide what is best for the business and what is best for the female of the species – the sturgeoness. Naturally, the decision is always in favor of sturgeons on farms adhering to humane farming practices. In addition, roe processing methods follow the ancient people of the Caspian Sea so you can enjoy an authentic experience of – the traditional nature of caviar.
Such ancient practices comprise the humane harvesting of female sturgeons in the fourth stage of egg maturation. At this stage, the egg is at its maximum size, and each egg is inside a covering skin or peel (like an orange peel), the eggs are all attached like grapes, this is the Unovulated Egg. The peel has colors and patterns on it and gives caviar its visual appeal. Shades of black, brown, and amber and patterns of rings and speckles are important factors in pricing caviar, like diamonds and pearls. The peel also gives the caviar its robustness which is the feel in the mouth. In addition, the taste profile of traditional caviar is enhanced by the salt-cured proteins comprising the peel. These unique attributes are what distinguish traditional caviar, thanks to artisans passing on their skills through generations. The tales of this kind of caviar go back thousands of years to the Caspian people and their sturgeons. Because of them, caviar became the only edible thing besides black pepper of India that profoundly influenced world history during the second millennium. Still, its legacy lives on only because of our endearment for the sturgeon and the traditions of its roe. That is why happy caviar comes from happy sturgeon.
Naturally, unhappy caviar comes from unhappy sturgeons. Unhappy sturgeons are found on farms where hormones are administered to make their ovaries shed the eggs inside their bodies (by advancing them to the Fifth Stage, the Ovulated Egg). Invasive and non-invasive procedures (some more painful than others) are used to extract the eggs. This is untraditional and inhumane because eggs are stripped from living females and repeated every two to three years. While the ethical questions remain, the ovulated egg caviar gives a different color, texture, and taste compared to true caviar. Consumers are required to be notified by labeling “caviar from ovulated eggs,” according to Codex Alimentarius of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. How and why did this grotesque practice begin?
As you may well know, wild sturgeons were predominantly found in the Caspian Sea, but starting around 1200AD exploitation by others, such as the Russians and Iranians, caused the stocks to steadily decline, and by 1960AD extinction of the Beluga sturgeon became a serious threat. But the fall of the Soviet Union (around 1989) led even more indiscriminate capture of sturgeons by the liberated littoral states. This prompted the US government in 2005 to prohibit Russian caviar imports under the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES) to protect the many sturgeon species by cutting off American and international trade. But decades before the ban, Russian biologists tried breeding the sturgeons to restock the Caspian Sea with baby sturgeons. They realized that wild sturgeons do not breed in captivity, so hormone-induced breeding procedures generally used for fish were followed. Removal of eggs involved Cesarean sections without anesthesia, scooping out the free eggs, suturing, and antibiotic injections. They raised thousands of baby sturgeons following this procedure because a female carried as many as a hundred thousand eggs or more. Restocking programs required just a handful of captive wild sturgeons, and these were returned alive back to the wild. But the remaining wild stock of protected females laden with eggs was big money swimming around. Presumably, hatchery operators took excess eggs to make caviar with the hope of beating the ban on killing sturgeons beyond the harvest quota. But the eggs ruptured on salting – no caviar. It soon became clear that the hormones dissolved the covering peel off the egg. This is a natural process that eggs in the fourth stage undergo and is called ovulation. It occurs when the fish’s pituitary gland sends hormones to free the egg from its covering peel and attachments so the (dressed) egg can be expelled from the body via the urogenital vent to the water. Eagerly waiting males release milt (sperm) to fertilize the naked egg. Generally, more males are found at these spawning events, but the selective capture of females for caviar would have significantly increased the number of males for every female.
Russian caviar processors (or poachers) quickly succeed by pretreating the fragile ovulated eggs from hormone-injected females in warm water (62-65 Celsius) for several minutes (repeated at intervals) to partially cook and harden the egg membrane. This is a form of low-temperature pasteurization, meaning some bacteria are killed. However, on salt curing of pre-heated ovulated eggs, the new product gave an altogether unnatural color and untraditional texture, and an off taste compared to true traditional caviar. They used additives like colors, preservatives, and oils to enhance the quality of the new product and bring it closer to the experience of traditional caviar. Nevertheless, traditional caviar was in such great demand in Russia, that the elites snobbishly accepted the heat-treated product as caviar. It is speculated that limited harvesting of wild stocks was going on for at least two decades to surreptitiously take eggs without killing the females because farming began only by the turn of the century.However, it is now known that most of the Russian farm-raised sturgeon caviar is pasteurized following ovulation to save the fish for future exploitation. This is particularly true for the Beluga sturgeon because they take around twenty years or more to mature. Keeping the fish alive for repeated extraction of eggs made economic sense for the caviar producers there from wild and farm-raised sturgeons. There are twenty-two Russian patents on pasteurized ovulated caviar and caviar preservatives between 1993 and 2013. Since almost all the ovulated and pasteurized caviar produced in Russia was consumed there, the rest of the world may not have known that hatchery technology was used to take eggs for caviar and the fish thus saved for repeated exploitation.
That is how and why the idea of not killing the female for caviar production was born in Russia. From an ethical animal welfare perspective, there is no historical precedent for this kind of food sourcing. Yet it was initiated by Russians under the pretext it saved the wild females from death and therefore a laudable conservation method. But this is a fallacy because there are fewer eggs in the wild spawning events and therefore the birth rate is diminished drastically for the sturgeon species already near extinction due to reproductive failure. Nevertheless, it’s a procedure that should make business sense to all caviar producers in the world, and yet opinions differ based on their technical limitations and animal welfare mission to follow ethical practices to produce caviar, and willingness to compete with producers who think and act differently.
Caviar consumers in Europe did not favor the Russian ovulated and pasteurized caviar because of its odd taste. If one could not enjoy the new caviar product, what difference does it make if the female sturgeon were killed or not killed? Yet, some sturgeon farmers in Europe tried other methods to prevent the rupture of ovulated eggs and arrive at a product like true caviar in all its splendor. Soon they also gave up and castigated anyone talking about ovulated-egg caviar for repeated exploitation. In the US, there were (and still are) just a handful of caviar producers, they did not even attempt to research ovulated caviar for business ends, so the ethics of repeated exploitation of the female remained undebated even in the context of Russian practice. Until about 2010, the matter of ovulated egg caviar stayed buried.
However, about ten years ago, an Alfred Wagner University (AWU, Germany) patented method involving hormone induction to obtain ovulated eggs and then chemically treating to prevent rupture of eggs restarted discussions in Europe. Interestingly, this alternative to the Russian method of preventing the rupture of ovulated eggs obtained from hormone-induced females was also developed following studies on the reproductive failure of Caspian Sea sturgeons. While Russians by the prior practice were taking ovulated eggs for caviar without killing the females, the terminology “no-kill caviar,” was popularized by the German promoters of the AWU patent. It gained no traction in Europe. This new product was so rubbery in texture that it had to be chewed, unlike traditional caviar that pops in the mouth. While the Russian ovulated heat-treated egg became opaque and grey, the German method made the egg glassy and brown inside. Without the peel, ovulated caviar of all sturgeon species processed by this method will look the same. One of the caviar’s most valuable attributes is its color and that is lost.
The sole German company promoting the patented technology closed within two years of inception, around 2017-18. During this time there was also a failure to launch in the US. At present, there is one insignificant operation in the UK and two more insignificant operations in Eastern Europe claiming to produce ovulated-egg caviar for no-kill purposes. In the US, there is some renewed posturing in favor of no-kill by yet another insignificant caviar producer.
Nevertheless, these producers and promoters are trying to sell their new caviar-like product by claiming they are saving endangered sturgeon species from extinction through repeated “milking of eggs.” By branding this method as no-kill they also mislead consumers into believing that the sturgeon feels no pain and suffering during the procedures and live until natural death. The no-kill label is a misappropriation from pet animal shelters that wantonly killed the animals in their care. Public outcry caused new animal shelters to emerge with the assurance of no-killing and other best practices in animal care. Therefore, the no-kill caviar is a misnomer because these are farm-raised animals expected to be killed for food and not pets to keep alive till death. Furthermore, the ovulation process can lead to death, or the sturgeon are killed for other reasons. The consumer has no assurance that the contributing no-kill caviar females are alive and for how long if not dead or killed. They influence consumer sentiments by saying that these beautiful creatures are unfortunately killed for caviar and this method saves them but do not want to admit they are doing it for the monetary benefits that repeated extraction brings. And keep emphasizing that it is a painless procedure involving just a massage. They want consumers to take the blame for the pain and suffering of female sturgeons while they take the gains. But it is not a win-win situation anyway it is presented. Consumer education is essential so that they can make informed judgments. Caviar consumers and caviar processors are not vegetarians or vegans, but empathy should never be lacking.
Traditional caviar is the guilt-free happy caviar indeed, whereas fate would bring some sturgeon under the no-kill program where prolonged pain and suffering are inherent. The no-kill caviar ironically is the unhappy caviar that consumers unwittingly partake in. Producers and promoters of no-kill caviar are guilty of deceptive marketing for personal gains. The sturgeon is not the beneficiary by any stretch of the imagination no matter what producers may say and what consumers may want to believe.
Caviar production is a business that serves all segments of society and therefore must be transparent in its treatment of sturgeons and their welfare cannot be traded for business gains through deceptive advertising. By emphasizing no-kill, promoters are diverting attention away from the lifelong pain and suffering of repeated Cesarean sections, stripping or stripping with vent incisions without anesthesia, and being out of the water, every two to three years to remove eggs. For example, a female sturgeon was subjected to C-sections eight times consecutively for about sixteen years in a hatchery in California. This is what is likely to happen in farming operations where thousands of fish will be subject to this form of exploitation. Sturgeons live fifty to a hundred years.
However, it is not practical to follow, the ovulation procedures during peak periods in actual commercial caviar production. Hatchery operators know how uncertain ovulation timing is and the chaos with just two females. Top caviar producers kill more than fifty female sturgeons daily for two to three months. No-kill may work for smaller boutique caviar producers who may wish to serve special requests from clients. Whereas larger operators may also produce small quantities to cater to special clients. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that consumers of animal products would favor a product without fully comprehending that the no-kill procedure involves stress, pain, and suffering even if it is of a short duration, though healing takes months after each procedure.
To summarize, traditional caviar was and is made by salt curing unovulated eggs obtained from killed sturgeons. To keep the females alive, hormone injections are a must to release the eggs, these ovulated eggs must be pre-treated to harden the eggs to prevent rupture when salted. The ovulated product looks feels and tastes drastically different. If the female dies after one has eaten the no-kill ovulated egg caviar, does the buyer get compensation?
The life-or-death status of the sturgeon has nothing to do with the quality of the caviar in terms of ovulated or unovulated nature of the eggs used to make it. If better quality caviar can be processed with ovulated eggs than present technologies allow, caviar processors may follow ovulation procedures and then kill the female for meat. Nevertheless, the tales of the ovulated no-kill caviar began within our lifetimes, just about four decades ago in Russia. Whereas the tales of true caviar made with unovulated eggs reaches into antiquity when the culture and traditions of the Caspian people developed under vastly different political regimes that we see today. Caviar may be viewed as a celebration of their traditions if one feels that Russia and the West made caviar their own and the rest as they say is history. There are plenty of books on this subject that caviar cravers may want to read because caviar stories are what makes caviar important in the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
For example, the Ossetra sturgeons of Marshallberg Farm have their origin in the Caspian Sea. A relationship with the staple food of the ancient Caspian people preempts any departure to untraditional practices. The unfolding tales of the no-kill caviar may end where it all began or fail as consumers elsewhere oppose the cruel and unusual punishment of sturgeons for the monetary gains of a few producers in this century. But as humans, should not our hearts go out to sturgeons and all living creatures that suffer under such perversions of human dignity. The tales of ancient caviar have been told for thousands of years and they will be heard for thousand more, provided we care to follow traditional wisdom that has sustained sturgeons in their natural habitats. Sturgeons survived the age of the dinosaurs, they will the age of humans, only if humans remain humane at large.
Dr. David Stephen is an aquaculture scientist and developer whose involvement with commercial sturgeon farming for caviar production began in 2001 in California.
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