December 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 12
An Interview with Inga Saffron
Inga Saffron is the author of Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the Worldís Most Coveted Delicacy. She has been a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 16 years and served as the newspaperís Moscow correspondent from 1994 to 1998.
|Most of the caviar today comes from the Caspian or the Black Sea, or the Amur River. But that is changing, as fish in those bodies of water become more threatened.||
Multinational Monitor: What is caviar?
MM: Where does caviar come from?
Caviar now comes from other places. There is a lot of sturgeon and paddlefish in the United States, and the United States is becoming an increasingly large producer of caviar, as it was in the nineteenth century.
MM: What is the life cycle of sturgeon?
One of the reason the sturgeon is in so much trouble now is, unlike most fish, they take quite a long time to mature. Beluga can take 20 years before sexual maturity. Even some of the smaller sturgeon take six to 10 years to reach adulthood and lay their eggs. When they finally mature, they go up the river.
MM: Historically, where were the large populations of sturgeon
outside of the Caspian?
They are very old fish. They were around at the time of the dinosaurs. When the dinosaurs went extinct, the sturgeon survived, probably because they were under water and not affected by the same climatic change as the land animals. They just kept swimming around the seas, and up the rivers when it was time to spawn. Nobody bothered them for a long time.
MM: But then people came along.
MM: How do you catch them?
There is another method, which poachers use in Russia and Kazakhstan. They run a line across the river, with hundreds of hooks dangling from the line. The sturgeon swimming up river get snagged on this curtain of hooks.
MM: What happened to the large sturgeon populations in North America?
If the Europeans did catch a sturgeon by accident when they were fishing for something else, they would feed it to their pigs, or use it as fertilizer; maybe they would feed it to their slaves or servants. But white people just didnít eat sturgeon or caviar. They didnít know how to make the caviar, they didnít know the technique of salting it.
In 1873, some Germans who had started a caviar business in Europe, and had gotten Europeans to like caviar, came to the United States. They said to the American fishermen, "Donít throw out your sturgeon, give them to us for a dollar a fish." That was a lot of money. The fishermen saw the Germans make caviar, and saw how much money they were making. They started to copy the Germans, or they sold the fish to the Germans or to other entrepreneurs who came here, and there began an incredible frenzy of fishing.
Between 1873 and the early 1900s, people made tons of money. The fishermen would start along the Savannah River ó the fish start spawning earlier in the South ó and they would just go river by river up to the Delaware. They would catch every sturgeon that was going up river to spawn. They really destroyed the East Coast population of sturgeon, and then they moved to the Great Lakes, and did the same thing.
Then they moved to the West Coast. By that time, people understood the effect of this type of fishing. In the early part of the twentieth century, California enacted the first curbs on fishing. Eventually, the state banned fishing of sturgeon. It is still forbidden to catch sturgeon today, except for sport fishing.
The sturgeon are particularly vulnerable. When you catch a sturgeon migrating up river, you are not just catching that fish, you are preventing future fish from being born. You are catching them in their reproductive process. It is doubly harmful.
MM: What happened in California?
MM: When did the caviar industry start in Russia?
That was the eleventh century. Iím sure local people ate it before the eleventh century.
By the thirteenth century, Tatars, who lived in the South of Russia, were trading with the Venetians, and trying to sell them caviar.
The thing that kept caviar from becoming an international commodity was poor transportation. Until there were railroads, steam engines and ice for preservation, it was really hard to transport caviar over long distances. It would just spoil. If it took six months to get from the Crimea to Venice, it was very likely the caviar would not survive that trip, especially if the weather was hot.
MM: When did the modern industry start?
In addition, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class, which had disposable income. They hungered after things which were new and exotic.
Trends intersected ó better transportation and fresher product, and disposable income to spend on luxury goods. By the 1860s and 1870s, caviar was a craze in Europe, particularly in Germany.
At that time, the Germans were importing it from Russia. Then they realized they had sturgeon in their own rivers, and could make their own caviar. They made so much of it, they destroyed their population of sturgeon. That is what caused the German merchants to go to the United States, to seek new sources of caviar.
MM: How did the establishment of the Soviet Union affect the industry?
When the Soviets came to power, things were pretty disorganized, so the sturgeon recovered a little bit during that time.
The Soviets then realized they could make a lot of money if they controlled the caviar market. They began organizing the industry in a centralized way, like they did with a lot of industries. They wanted to export it, because they needed the hard currency. But they intentionally controlled the exports to make the caviar more valuable, and to increase its allure.
During a good part of the Soviet Unionís existence, they limited the amount of fishing that could be done in the Caspian and the Black Sea, and they limited the amount of caviar that would be made and exported.
I donít want to say that they have a great environmental record, because they donít. But they did act as a brake on fishing because they limited caviar exports.
The Soviets built a series of dams on the Volga in the 1950s and 1960s, cutting off the sturgeonís spawning grounds. The sturgeon population started to crash again. The Soviets realized what was happening, and they began building hatcheries.
By the time the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, a very large percentage of sturgeon was being born in hatcheries.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did that hatchery system. The hatcheries became much less efficient, they put back many fewer fish than they had before. That is part of the reason that there is a crisis today.
MM: Why did the hatchery system fall apart?
Russia was just in total collapse after 1991. Factories all across the country were used to getting their money for operating costs from the government, and they just shut down when the government stopped sending money. Suddenly there was no more government to pay their bills, and plenty of the factories went bankrupt. Hatcheries were just one type of factory that had no money to operate.
That is not the only cause of the current crisis in the Caspian.
At the same time, many of the people who had been thrown out of work began to fish illegally. They began to poach for sturgeon and make caviar in their kitchens, because that is the only way they could make money. It was the one resource in Southern Russia. That had a tremendous impact on the sturgeon as well.
All the rules that the Soviet Union had about when to fish were ignored, and people just fished all the time. They had no limits. That put a lot of pressure on the sturgeon population.
MM: Did Russia and the other former Soviet states make any effort
to control the poaching?
In Russia, the government knew that people were poaching, but it also knew that it couldnít pay peopleís salaries and that they would starve if it didnít let them poach. So the government looked the other way, because they thought they had no other choice.
Also, Russia was an incredibly corrupt place after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Caviar gangs ó organized crime gangs ó sprang up. They would bribe various enforcement officials. There was a famous incident where Russian federal police boarded a ship that had been poaching in the sea, and the local Daghestani police arrived, and they fought it out. The Daghestani police had been bribed, and they were protecting these poachers.
MM: Iran is a counter example to all of this?
That has been good for their part of the Caspian. It is interesting that the Southern Caspian, where Iran is located, is not the best place for sturgeon. It is the Northern Caspian ó the Russian and Kazakhstan portions ó where there were once the greatest concentration of sturgeon. It is shallower and warmer, and was the real fertile area for sturgeon in the Caspian.
MM: Are there international efforts to save the sturgeon?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the U.S. partner of CITES, has worked really hard to reduce smuggling into the United States. There was a New York dealer who was recently convicted in New York; and my suspicion is that he is going to be the last really big caviar criminal caught. That is not to say that people arenít going to smuggle a suitcase full of caviar, but it is becoming harder to run a really big systematic smuggling operation.
I think Europe has been less successful, because there you can bring caviar in overland, whereas in the United States customs can control the airports and thereby control smuggling.
The problem is that CITES does not control what is going on domestically in Russia and Kazakhstan. Although it is harder for Russians to export caviar than it was in 1997, it is no harder to fish for sturgeon than it was five years ago, because the Russian government does not enforce its own fishing laws. You can go to Moscow and find caviar selling incredibly cheaply ó more cheaply today than 10 years ago.
MM: To what extent is pollution a part of the story of the decline
of sturgeon in the Caspian?
MM: To what extent are Russians writing caviar off in favor of
MM: Is there any prospect of controls being put in place to save
the sturgeon population?
Weíve seen this pattern repeated over and over again. The Germans destroyed their population of sturgeon, the French destroyed theirs, the United States destroyed its population of sturgeon, always in a very short period of time. I donít see the Russians or the Kazakhs getting really serious.
There was a recent story about the Kazakhs starting a beluga farm, which I suppose is a good thing. They are going to farm beluga on land, which could give them an incentive to protect the fish remaining in the sea. I do think that, more and more, caviar farms will supply most of the delicacy in the future, though farming is still an experimental thing.
MM: If there was political will, what should be done?
One really effective thing they could do is shorten the fishing season. The sturgeon swim up river at known times of year, the beluga in February, the ossetra in late April/May/June, the sevruga around the same time. What is happening now is the fishermen are fishing almost the whole time the sturgeon are swimming up river to spawn. If you cut that time in half, youíd give some a chance to spawn.
That would be really effective, perhaps along with some encouragement to the hatcheries, either with Russian government or international support, and more funding for scientists. I interviewed one of the most renowned sturgeon scientists in Russia; she didnít even have a computer to track the number of fish caught in different places.
I think the international community has to lay down the law to Russia, and say, "This is really important. You have this environmental resource, this strange prehistoric creature, and you shouldnít be squandering it." I donít know if they can be convinced, but I think it is worth a try.
|The fishermen would catch every sturgeon that was going up river to spawn. They really destroyed the East Coast population of sturgeon, and then they moved to the Great Lakes, and did the same thing.|
During a good part of the Soviet Unionís existence, they limited the amount of fishing that could be done in the Caspian and the Black Sea, and they limited the amount of caviar that would be made and exported. I donít want to say that they have a great environmental record, because they donít. But they did act as a brake on fishing because they limited caviar exports.
|Iran is sort of like the Soviet Union used to be. It maintains centralized control, and operates very efficiently. The Iranians have hatcheries. They tag every fish they release into the sea. They have very strict controls over how many they catch.||Many of the people who had been thrown out of work began to fish illegally. All the rules that the Soviet Union had about when to fish were ignored, and people just fished all the time. They had no limits. That put a lot of pressure on the sturgeon population.|