Sturgeons are on verge on extinction because their eggs are in high demand as cocktail snack

As India develops hunger for new things, its rich forget how to discriminate between the good the West has to offer and its garbage. Smelly cigars, strange and viciously cruel foods, enormously crowded and smoky rooms that pass for “clubs”…these are some of the strange imported hunger that bring nothing but disease in their wake.

Nothing could be stranger than the recent crops of articles in consumer and women’s magazines on the way to eat caviar. Caviar is nothing but the unborn eggs of a fish. They smell bad, they taste so bad that they have to be drenched with lime, butter, biscuits, toast – its aficionados say it is an “acquired taste” which means they spent months gagging over it before their taste buds were so dulled that they could eat it. It is so salty that you have to drown it with alcohol to quench your thirst. It cost more than an average person’s monthly salary. It is acquired in the most wicked manner.

But before I continue, let me tell you why caviar originally became a party offering. In the United States at the turn of the century, caviar was offered at taverns and saloons for the same reason that peanuts are offered today: the saltiness encourages more drinking. In 1899, one kilogramme of French caviar cost a mere 20 centimes. Just before World War-I, 40 centimes bought the same kilogramme, putting the price of caviar just slightly higher than that of bread. It was the cheapest way to dupe the customer at the pub: so it was put free in all drinking houses. Now the rich think it is classy to eat something that they were fooled into eating so that pub owners could earn more through liquor.

File image of an employee holding a female sturgeon at the caviar fish farming company "Sturgeon". Reuters

File image of an employee holding a female sturgeon at the caviar fish farming company "Sturgeon". Reuters

Is there still a single creature on earth that dates back to prehistoric times? The sturgeon is a fish that swam the seas in an age when dinosaurs roamed the earth and survived what those giants could not. And do you know that these remarkable 120 million years old species are now facing extinction? We may never know what really killed off the dinosaurs, but we do know for sure, that what is destroying these fish is the demand for their eggs as a cocktail snack. Imagine losing an entire species for a titbit topping!

As more and more of the educated world realizes that elegant dining means ethical eating, let us examine the true costs of caviar. The barbaric practice of eating sturgeon eggs first began in West Asia, in fact, the word caviar comes from the Turkish word khavyah which means roe or fish eggs. Except for the numbers which have increased dangerously, the killing method remains as primitive and brutal as one hundred years ago. Few who relish the caviar could stomach the way it is obtained.

The sturgeon is a grand fish that can live 150 years, grow 19 feet long and weigh over 500 kg. It is the very first of the cartilaginous fishes. The female of the species is larger than the male. She takes 16-20 years to mature and begin producing roe. At this poin, she leaves the sea and heads upstream to river spawning grounds to lay her eggs.
Around 80 to 90 percent of the world’s sturgeon live within the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake with a surface area of 3,74,000 square kilometre and they swim upstream to the Danube or Volga rivers to spawn. It is at the mouth of these rivers that they are caught.

What fishermen do is stretch a stout line across the river from which they suspend short lines with large pointed hooks just a few inches apart. The points where these hanging lines are attached, are marked by small clusters of reeds. On her way to or from the river, the fish runs into these lethal barriers. She grazes against the hooks or may even swallow one. Once the fish has snapped her mouth shut on a hook, there is no escape. In her panic to get away, however, she often rips herself to pieces on the other hooks. To the watching fisherman on shore, the shaking of the reeds indicates when a fish is entangled. Immediately they set off in canoes, harpoon the wounded, frightened creature and haul her in. But the worst is yet to come.

For the highest quality caviar, the fish must be alive when the eggs are removed. So the fish is stilled with a blow or several to the head, her tender belly is sliced open and the eggs plucked out. Only then is she allowed to die. Every time you partake of caviar, this is the cruelty you condone. Even worse you become part of the malignant trade that is pushing a critically endangered species over the brink.

In the Volga river delta, an area about the size of Switzerland, officials have recently found 5,000 bottom lines with 80 to 100 hooks each, which means half a million hooks trapping several times that number of fish. Even worse than killing young females on their way to spawn, are the boats that use nets in the Caspian. Here catching is indiscriminate with 90 percent of the fish caught having no eggs and simply having their bellies slit and slung back into the sea for nothing.

Just recently, 2,000 large mesh nets spanning an area of 60 kilometres were found with 70 tonnes of sturgeon entangled dead and dying in them. In 1998, nets spanning 30 times that area (1,400—2,100 kilometre) were laid so you can imagine how many fish were snared.

As it is the Sturgeon has to cope with pervasive pollution, bad weather and ‘development’ projects that have dammed up the rivers. The rush to exploit the Caspian's massive oil reserves has put all the area’s marine life under growing threat. Sloppy drilling has resulted in the formation of a quarter-inch thick film of oil on some parts of the once pristine lake. Just recently an epidemic wiped out over 3,000 seals in the area. Hydroelectric dams crisscross the Volga blocking access to her upper reaches. Plus, newly arrived in the Caspian is an alien species, the comb jellyfish Mnemiopsis leidyi, which competes for food with the sprats (kilka) on which the sturgeon depends.

But even all these factors combined cannot account for the sturgeon’s alarming decline. If today, experts give the fish just two to three years more, there is only one culprit, the increasing demand for caviar.

The high value of caviar abroad makes it an extremely lucrative item to trade as well as smuggle. This in turn results in both poaching and dangerous overfishing. Previously, caviar supply was monopolised by the Soviets and Iran, the only two countries that touched the Caspian and which cooperated to limit the supply of caviar and thus protect its price and image. Now with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the entrance of new nations Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan has thrown the caviar trade wide open.

For these cash-starved countries, the sturgeon is simply ‘hard currency with fins". Formerly, the entire annual caviar export of the Soviet Union used to be 150 tons. Now, Azerbaijan, alone, aims to sell 100 tons a year. So, money for arms and armies is coming from reckless plundering of the Caspian with no thought for the future. Unlike diamonds, however, caviar comes from a living source which is in imminent danger of disappearing altogether.

In the absence of any quotas, catch limits or regulations, sturgeons are now being caught even before they have a chance to spawn. The result is less and less fish to repopulate the waters. Between the combined countries’ fishermen, an estimated 90 percent of sturgeons are killed before they are matured enough to reproduce. Not surprisingly, the number of sturgeons returning to the Volga River each year has, reportedly, declined three-fold since 1991.

In the last five years, WWF figures put sturgeon catches in the Caspian down to three percent of their levels 25 years ago. There are simply no more fish in the sea. It has taken us just one century to destroy a species hundreds of millions years old. As a result, even rebreeding is impossible.

To encourage the fish to breed, they are given hormone injections. But now there aren’t enough sturgeon to even provide these hormones, so hormones from other species are being used. It's the same with sperm: the fish are inseminated using different sorts of sperm producing hybrids rather than real sturgeon. So what you’re getting is not even pure sturgeon or real caviar. For example, where an adult Beluga Sturgeon commonly weighed 900 pounds, now the average weight of the Caspian Beluga is 77 pounds, or less than a tenth of her earlier size.

Not only that, with upto 90 percent of the catch from the Caspian being poached, chances are you are buying smuggled goods. In Astrakhan, the Russian city just north of the Volga delta, you seldom see caviars openly on sale. But taxi drivers are quick to ask whether you would like to buy a kilo of the country's most famous food product, packed into copper-coloured containers which look like soup dishes.

Some years ago, the Soviet deputy minister of Fisheries was executed for smuggling out caviar in tins marked salted herring. So the rot goes right to the top with a large and greedy mafia controlling the trade. With one kg of top-quality caviar fetching about 2,000 pounds, the illegal export of caviar is reckoned to be worth $170m to $200m a year. This money funds the Mafia's other criminal operations like drugs and arms dealing.

Today, many varieties of caviar are priced at $100 per ounce, Taking 80 percent of the supply, America is the world’s largest eater of caviar – eating 33,000 kilos in 2000.
But is caviar really worth its exorbitant price tag, or are its patrons simply fools whose IQs are inversely proportional to their bank balances? And apart from the money, what about the costs to our health and environment. Did you know that Borax, which is a banned food additive, is added to caviar along with the salt to give it a softer, sweeter finish? And finally what about the sturgeon who our greed and short-sightedness are killing. Already some rare species of sturgeon are considered extinct including the sterlet.

There is actually nothing fashionable about caviar. Just as it is considered crass to buy carpets or crackers made with child labour or shahtoosh from the fleece of an imperilled antelope, it is equally insensitive to buy or promote something that will signal the end of a species that predates the dinosaurs and has outlived them. Let us not be remembered as the generation that destroyed these remarkable fish.

Remember there is no way to remove the eggs without killing the sturgeon. And whether or not their contents are smuggled or legal, caviar tins will never qualify for a cruelty-free or eco-friendly label. Fishing and killing of the sturgeon will stop only when consumer demand for caviar stops. You can help. Do not eat or buy caviar, and discourage others from doing so. In this fish story, the only happy ending for the sturgeon is, well, no ending.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org


Published Date: Aug 14, 2017 06:01 pm | Updated Date: Aug 14, 2017 06:11 pm


Also See