Caviar Wars

Photograph by Hans Jergen Burkard/SABA, used with permission

In less than seventy years, Soviet communism turned the breadbasket of Eurasia into a nation dependent on American wheat and grateful for foreign aid in the form of frozen chicken legs (which Russians affectionately called nogi Busha — Bush’s legs — for George Sr., who sent them). The one food the hungry Soviet Union always supplied its capitalist enemies was a gourmet delicacy, caviar. Will that most Russian of luxuries continue to appear on Western canapé trays in the post-communist era? Maybe not.

Russian black caviar (sometimes gray, brown, or amber) comes from sturgeon that were trapped in the Caspian Sea three million years ago, when the huge lake was cut off from its connection with the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. Some twenty-seven species of sturgeon in Europe, Asia, and North America produce the roe called caviar, but for more than two centuries culinary fashion has declared that the best caviar is Caspian, and the best Caspian caviar is from the giant beluga sturgeon, followed by the sevruga and ocetra.

In one of history’s ironies, the new communist regime of the 1920s created a state monopoly on the black pearls of the rich man’s banquet. In the ancient Silk Road city of Astrakhan, where the Volga River breaks into a vast delta fan to meet the Caspian Sea, a government kombinat (company) commercialized the traditional preparation methods of the salty roe and became a major earner of hard currency for the new regime.

No government had ever focused so ruthlessly on material goods or been so blind to the destruction of its natural environment. During the Soviet period the twenty-three hundred miles of the Volga became a giant sewer for the more than sixty million people in its watershed. Over three thousand factories dumped more than one million cubic meters of untreated industrial wastewater into the Caspian annually.

The Caspian sturgeon are anadromous fish that depend on the waters of the Volga and Caspian. Sturgeon are also bottom feeders. Their flat stomachs hug the bottom as their hard noses stir the sediments. They are protected from prey by a triangular back covered with bony plates instead of scales. When their four barbells sense food, their toothless extendable mouths smooch forward to suck in worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and larvae. After six to twenty years in the salty Caspian, the sturgeon beat their way up the sea’s many feeder rivers, where a single female might eject up to two million eggs. The giant Volga was once the breeding ground for over seventy percent of Caspian sturgeon, which ranged a thousand miles upstream. The great dam at Volgograd (once Stalingrad) ended the sturgeon migration, and the Soviets began a program of hatchery breeding.

While the Soviets overexploited their fisheries along with the rest of its natural wealth, the state-run caviar kombinats did control the sturgeon catch and brought down the wrath of government on poachers and smugglers. With the fall of communism the government companies survived, but law and order in Russia and the new countries bordering the Caspian disintegrated. The failure to replace government monopoly with an enforceable system of private fishing rights left a sturgeon population that was already stressed by pollution at the mercy of rogue fishermen, mafia poachers, and corrupt officials.

From the largely unemployed local population hundreds of desperately poor brakaneers launch their rowboats at night, slipping out into the maze of channels among the willows and reeds. (Unlike the English word “poacher,” the Russian “brakaneer” has the connotation of an established profession.) They are joined by well-armed mafia poachers who use boats and radios to outmaneuver government inspectors, who themselves are vulnerable to corruption. Everywhere in Russia officials who have interfered with the illegal exploitation of natural resources have met violence and death. Last fall contract killers murdered a regional governor who had blocked mafia access to local fisheries.

All the Caspian nations have regulations limiting fishing and prohibiting poaching, but the high price of caviar, a long tradition of corruption, and dire poverty mean that enforcement is no match for greed and need. The Russian office of World Wildlife Fund estimates that eighty percent of the sturgeon caviar for sale in Moscow comes from black market production. Russia officially exported $25 million worth of legal caviar in 1999, but the value of poached caviar exports is thought to be ten times that amount. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated as early as 1998 that more than fifty percent of the world trade in caviar was illegal. In 2000 the U.S. government fined two importers for using forged Russian labels.

The U.S. continues to be the biggest importer of Caspian caviar, but the supply is dropping. With demand as strong as ever, prices have risen to $80 an ounce for beluga caviar, $60 for osetra, and $45 for sevruga. Of the three primary species, the highly prized beluga that produces black caviar is near extinction and the osetra is not far behind. A coalition of international conservation groups has launched a boycott of beluga caviar with the motto: “Caviar emptor: Connoisseur beware.”

Market forces are beginning to take some of the pressure off the Volga delta and Caspian Sea sturgeon. Spurred by rising prices, entrepreneurs in parts of the world where property can be protected are risking the long-term investment in sturgeon farms, and good marketing is trumping the traditional prestige of Russian caviar. Joint ventures in Montana and North Dakota now produce three tons of caviar a year. Fish farmers are also learning how to milk sturgeon or remove their eggs by caesarian instead of killing them.

The future of the Volga and Caspian sturgeon, however, is far from secure. The Volga remains a giant sewer, and the once-clean Caspian will soon be dotted with oil rigs, crossed by giant submerged pipelines, and traversed by tankers as the former Soviet states prepare to supply their new allies with oil.

Photojournalist Hans Jergen Burkard works for the German magazine Stern, and is the recipient of several World Press awards. Working in Russia, he and Stern correspondent Katja Gloger have broken stories on the mafia, environmental degradation, and abuses within the military and police.

Wallace Kaufman has been writing for Orion and working in European Russia, Siberia, and Central Asia since Soviet times. In the summer of 2003 Wm. Morrow published Contrary Winds: The Russian Discovery of America, about biologist Georg Steller and Captain Vitus Bering.