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The Murky and Deep Waters of the Caviar Industry

I'm sure you've all heard of caviar. It is considered to be one of the most luxurious and sought-after foods in the world, and for good reason, it is said – it has a rich, buttery texture and is described in taste as both salty and sweet. But beyond its price tag, it comes at a staggeringly cruel cost.

 

Caviar, once a luxury item enjoyed by the wealthy, became increasingly popular and sought after by the masses in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, the Volga River and the Caspian Sea were home to millions of sturgeons, the fish from which caviar is harvested. The abundance of sturgeon was so great that the idea of a shortage seemed impossible, leading to a lack of regulation and safeguards to protect the population. However, by the time the communists came to power in Russia in the early 20th century, the sturgeon population had significantly decreased. Overfishing and a lack of effective management and conservation measures had taken a heavy toll on the sturgeon. The declining numbers highlighted the need for sustainable practices and regulations to ensure the survival of sturgeon species and the continuation of caviar production.


This situation serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of conservation and sustainable resource management to prevent the depletion of species such as the sturgeon. It becomes clear that sustainable ways to harvest caviar are urgent, but the question I want to raise is this: do we really need to harvest and consume caviar at all?


Boutique caviar farms have emerged as a response to the environmental impact of traditional caviar production. These farms focus on breeding sturgeon in controlled environments, ensuring a consistent and sustainable supply of caviar without further depleting wild populations. They typically operate under strict regulations and guidelines to ensure the health and welfare of the sturgeon. Some even use innovative methods to harvest caviar without killing the fish. 


Caviar has been synonymous with luxury and wealth for decades. It is interesting to understand why. Sturgeons can weigh up to several thousand pounds and produce hundreds of pounds of 'roe' at a time. Sturgeons, placed on the IUCN's (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, are now more critically endangered than any other species group, with about 85% per cent of sturgeon falling under this bracket. Their population has been decimated due to continuous exploitation for caviar, the sturgeon's unfertilised eggs, considered the finest eggs in the world. Sturgeons can live up to a hundred years but do not reproduce annually, meaning they can take several years to recover from population declines. An economic concept called the 'rarity value thesis' explains it – the rarity increases the item's value, and therefore, its price increases by more than the cost of procuring it. And so, the exorbitant pricing of the eggs. 


Farmers at caviar farms claim they produce high-quality caviar while reducing the impact on wild sturgeon populations. By raising sturgeon in controlled environments, they can, apparently, ensure a steady supply of caviar without depleting natural resources. In their defence, farming techniques have evolved to improve the sustainability and ethical aspects of caviar production. But is it so?


Footage from an on-land caviar farm, gathered by a whistleblower and made public by the animal law organisation‘ Animal Justice’, paints a disturbing picture of the industry's practices. The footage shows workers repeatedly stabbing sturgeon in their abdomens, likely to determine whether the eggs are mature enough to harvest. After this crude inspection, workers use straws to suck the eggs out of the fish. The New York Times Magazine described this practice somewhat differently in a 2020 article, which portrayed a less brutal process where fish farmed for caviar reach the age of six and then undergo "yearly biopsies." These biopsies involve inserting a thin, flexible sampling straw into the abdomen to extract a few eggs.


Sturgeons are big animals that live for decades and cover a lot of area in their lifetime, so throwing them into tiny water tanks, repetitively forcing them into ovulation and leaving them to recover before doing it again heavily deprives the fish. This kind of distress and torture is almost as unnecessary as killing the fish. 


Just for a delightful decadent merely used as a garnish, the caviar farming industry is relentlessly cruel and purely unnecessary. We need to ask if we even really need caviar. For all the fishy business involved in getting it onto our plates, it is not worth obsessing over. It is also worth noting that caviar is a food that most don't even eat, and only a handful can afford. Exposing the pain inflicted upon sturgeons at these fish farms is essential and urgent. When people learn what it takes to get caviar to their doorstep, it will propel them to question whether it is necessary to have caviar in their lives. 


The Occupy Movement was the first of its kind, and if it taught us anything, it was to get serious about our power and how to use it radically. It demanded a world without classes or castes, a world where everyone eats, not just those who can afford "ethical" caviar. In the grander scheme of things, food in any price range is indeed food not to be wasted, but when it symbolises decadence and greed while an estimated 1.2 billion people go hungry worldwide each year, does it really feed any of us? And is consuming it really impacting our lives significantly enough for sturgeons to bear the brunt?


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