Traditionally, caviar has been extracted from dead sturgeon. Fisherman would fish the Caspian and Black Seas during the sturgeon migration season (when female fish migrate upstream to lay their eggs) to fish for mature female sturgeon. Once caught, the fish would be sliced open and their eggs removed, naturally killing the fish. To prevent spoilage, the caviar would be cleaned aboard the boat and packed on ice, while the rest of the fish would be later sold to fish markets. As a result of over fishing, and a lack of restocking- not to mention it generally takes anywhere from 7-20 years for the sturgeon to mature, all adds up to a near extinction of the species.
Despite severe restrictions on the amount of fish that can be caught each year, their numbers are still in decline. However, thanks to alternative harvesting methods, there is hope for the sturgeon.
In 1987, Russian ichthyologist Sergey Podushka, introduced a non-surgical, stitch-free solution of removing the sturgeon eggs by simply pushing them out of the genital orifice with the help of a head-to-tail massage. The Podushka method only takes 10 minutes and it was not evasive for the fish.
Similarly, today’s sustainable caviar producers and sturgeon aqua cultures use a similar process termed “stripping” that also extracts the eggs without the need for surgery. In this case, “when the female fish is ready to be harvested, a micro-incision is made along the urogenital muscle to help in the release of eggs.” This is thought to be the most humane technique available, though not extensively used due to the precision required for the procedure.
Another method of extracting caviar sustainably (without killing the fish), was roe-extraction surgery. This was actually the first effort in sustainable caviar production; was introduced because it was realized that the future of caviar may come to an end if something wasn’t done. Russian ichthyologist Dr. Burtsev was the first to successfully perform roe-extraction surgery (much like a Caesarean section) on a sturgeon in 1967. It became known as the Burtsev method. Despite the fact that it is very painful and stressful on the fish without actually killing it, this procedure is considered illegal in many countries.
The Burtsev method is still used to this day, however, with some improvements, for example, the fish are often given a hormone injection to bring about ovulation, as well as a light sedative to eliminate the stress and pain.
Is sustainability enough?
Despite several sustainable measure to harvest caviar, the main issue are the sturgeon poachers. Regardless whether a caviar company uses sustainable alternatives to remove the eggs, the fish is perpetually returned back to its natural habitat to spawn again. Poachers don’t care either way, especially when a mature female can carry upwards of 20-25 pounds of eggs which can get a substantial price on the market (not to mention what the flesh can be sold for as well). So unless governments start levying hefty fines to poachers, or stop poaching all together, there could be some serious long-term repercussions to the caviar industry in the Caspian region.
Sturgeon Farms and aquacultures:
Another solution is through the farming of fish. These aquaculture programs allow farmers to raise and grow sturgeon (or other fish), extract roe sustainably and release the fish back into their tanks, or harvest the eggs (killing the fish) while maintaining a constant supply of farmed fish to replace those harvested. In one example, the farmer could extract caviar out of the same fish dozens of times in a 20-year period. The only drawback would be that the fish would continue to grow in size, taking up valuable tank space), and it might be more cost-effective to simply raise new fish when the mature ones get too big. In this regard, it combines both traditional methods (killing the fish) and sustainable methods as well.
Thankfully for the sturgeon, and the caviar industry, these changes will lead to a larger supply of available caviar over the long term. In spite of the fact that the traditional technique of catching and cutting-open the fish to remove the ovaries is still extensively practised in some areas; an effort is being made to remove the caviar surgically, and keeping the fish alive to reproduce roe again and again.
Why use a surgical solution?
Sturgeons often have a lifespan of up to or over 100 years, and given the fact that they sexually mature at 10-15 years of age, that’s a lot of caviar that can be harvested over the years by keeping the fish alive (would you kill the goose that laid the golden eggs?). In addition, Roe “stripping” is even less evasive, and although relatively new (many farmers and caviar producers aren’t properly educated on the complicated procedure), this method can certainly provide the answer to long-term caviar sustainability and the re-emergence of a healthy sturgeon population.