Better get your last licks in soon, however. The beluga sturgeon that produce the world's best caviar are under enormous pressure from overfishing, dam building and pollution by the former Soviet republics that ring the Caspian Sea. Most species of sturgeon are in decline—some by as much as 90%—and those native to the Caspian appear doomed. Environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put beluga on the endangered-species list—a move that would cut off supply to the world's largest market of consumers. (Americans swallow up to 80% of the annual beluga harvest.) The agency held public hearings last month to consider the matter; a final recommendation is expected this summer.
"People are going to have to live without beluga caviar for a while if we are going to have any hope of rescuing the species," says Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a spokeswoman for a sturgeon-hugging coalition that calls itself Caviar Emptor.
Part of the problem is due to the nature of the beast. Sturgeon are ancient creatures that have swum the world's rivers and seas for millions of years. Clad in bony plates, they are fierce-looking fish that can grow to enormous lengths—measuring up to six meters from snout to tail and weighing more than a ton. But they mature slowly: some don't begin reproducing until they are 15 to 25 years old. When a female sturgeon does start ovulating, she can be quite valuable, producing more than a million eggs, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the U.S.
Until the early 1990s, the sturgeon supply in the Caspian Sea was tightly regulated by the Soviet Union and Iran. But when the Soviet regime collapsed, so did governmental control. Today poachers supply some 300 tons of caviar per year, 10 times as much as legal traders. The temptations are great in a region where economic opportunities are scarce. In a typical bust, smugglers in the Russian county of Astrakhan managed to load an air-force cargo plane with almost 350 kilograms of sturgeon roe before it was seized by the Federal Security Service.
Anatoli Vlasenko, deputy director of the Caspian Research Institute of Fisheries, disputes reports of the beluga's demise. "The 90% depletion figure is a gross exaggeration on the part of the nervous media," he says. Still, the Russians have worked hard to sustain the remaining population with hatcheries and export quotas. Banning imports "would be the catalyst for a new round of poaching and illegal trade," says Armen Petrossian, head of the International Caviar Importers Association. In the U.S., the demand for beluga caviar has led not just to illegal imports of what some call black gold but also to a rash of false labeling. Arkady Panchernikov, whose Caspian Star Caviar handled some 60% of the caviar imported into the U.S., pleaded guilty in November to six counts of fraud and trafficking without permits and for falsely labeling inferior grades of caviar as beluga.
As Caspian caviar gets harder to come by, all sorts of alternatives are popping up. Scientists can't get their hands on enough beluga sturgeon to start breeding them in the U.S. (there are fewer than five in the 50 states), but America does have its own natural population of sturgeon and sturgeonlike fish. Roe from native white sturgeon and its close cousin, the paddlefish, is becoming increasingly popular. Stolt Sea Farm, near Sacramento, California, has boosted production of its Sterling-brand caviar of farmed white sturgeon from 23 kilograms in 1995 to more than six tons a year.
A U.S. beluga ban wouldn't affect Asian restaurants and food stores: they can always buy from European suppliers. Hong Kong's House of Fine Foods, the territory's largest caviar importer, says its customers are already content with such lesser grades as osetra and sevruga caviar, which come from the same region as beluga. "We do get requests for beluga," says managing director Gephard Scherrer, "but out of the 1.5 tons we import, only about 80 kilograms is beluga." Strict controls started in 1998 have already boosted caviar prices. Tokyo had several specialty caviar restaurants before the Japanese economy deflated. Only one, the 14-year-old Beluga, remains, and its business is suffering. "We can't look to the future with optimism," says manager Toshio Ensaka, "unless an abundant supply from farming is realized."
As caviar snobbery gives way to environmental concerns, some top chefs are giving up on not only beluga but also osetra and sevruga. More than 100 U.S. chefs and retailers have signed a letter to Interior Secretary Gail Norton supporting a beluga ban. Among them is Rick Moonen, former chef of New York City's Oceana, who recently opened a new seafood restaurant called RM. "I always had Caspian caviar on my menus," says Moonen. But when he noticed a decline in the quality of Caspian caviar a few years ago, Moonen started shopping for alternatives. His menu currently features Blue Island oysters with cucumber sorbet and paddlefish roe, sea-urchin custard with champagne foam and rainbow-trout caviar. Next up: buckwheat waffles with Sterling caviar. Purists would be appalled, but if that's what it takes to ensure the survival of an ancient sea creature, it may be worth it.