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Beluga caviar has always been the crown jewel of caviar, as it’s the most expensive and most prized variety of the delicacy. Unfortunately, this goes hand-in-hand with it being the rarest type of caviar on the market. However, a lot of people wonder if you can buy beluga caviar in the USA.
Yes, you can buy beluga caviar in the United States, as the country’s first native caviar farm opened up in 2020: Marky’s Caviar. However, this is the only type of beluga caviar you’ll be able to get in the country because of a ban on its importation that began in 2005.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the story of how you can find beluga caviar in the USA and why it’s so difficult to do so. I’ll go over where you can find the caviar, how much it will cost you, and I’ll even go over the treaty that has limited the importation of this delicacy into America.
While you’ve been able to buy caviar in the United States since 2005, true beluga caviar has been out of reach of the average consumer because of its import ban, which I’ll discuss in greater detail later on. However, Sturgeon Aquafarms in Florida has been slowly working to bring it back to the US market.
Back in 2016, the business received an exception from the FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) stating that they can legally sell beluga. In the years since the business was granted this exception, they have been working hard on bringing beluga caviar to the US market, but they had to operate under a few conditions:
While it may sound like the goal of bringing beluga caviar to the American market and restoring beluga sturgeon populations are diametrically opposed, Sturgeon Aquafarms has found a way to make it a reality.
The business was founded by Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman. However, the founders had been working on raising beluga sturgeon in the USA before they were even granted an exception to sell the fish and its eggs commercially. This is due to the long time that it takes beluga sturgeon to mature.
Zaslavsky has been growing his beluga sturgeon for the past 17 years at the Sturgeon Aquafarm in Florida, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. This is because of the huge difference in climate between the Caspian Sea and humid Florida.
Starting in 2003, Russian-born Zaslavsky started carrying baby sturgeon back from Russia to the United States by hand, flying straight to Florida with the fish on his person. Zaslavsky managed to bring back 70 fish before the United States banned the importation of all beluga in 2005.
With these 70 fish, Sturgeon Aquafarms got its start, and their stock has grown considerably in the past 17 years. They are now up to about 30,000 fish spread between 100 tanks, and they have invested a considerable amount of money in producing beluga caviar in the United States.
Sturgeon Aquafarms has spent about $15 million on their efforts so far, and costs continue to rise, but being the exclusive producer of American beluga caviar will likely put them in a good place.
Sturgeon typically thrive in deep, cold water. The water in the Caspian Sea is typically much colder than the waters in Florida, so it has taken some ingenuity on the part of the Sturgeon Aquafarm to make the dream of beluga caviar in the United States a reality.
The harvested caviar is sold through Marky’s Caviar, and the business shares the name of its two owners and investors. To ensure that the delicacy remains in the United States, Marky’s only sells its beluga caviar to American customers, and this exclusivity doesn’t seem like it will change anytime soon.
As you’d expect from beluga caviar, it fetches a high price, and the fact that it’s the only beluga caviar available in the US makes Marky’s product more expensive than comparable delicacies around the world. You can expect to pay $830 for an ounce of Marky’s caviar or just under $11,500 per pound.
Marky’s caviar is sold both online and at their brick-and-mortar locations in New York and Miami.
As part of the agreement between Sturgeon Aquafarms and the FWS, the company has to maintain its commitment to restoring the population of beluga sturgeon. To do so, the company has so far donated over 150,000 fertilized eggs to sturgeon farms that are trying to repopulate the species.
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Along with Marky’s, there is only one other beluga caviar farm in the United States, and it’s also located in Florida. Evans Fish Farm is a smaller operation than Sturgeon Aquafarms, and it produces several different kinds of caviar under its brand Anastasia Gold Caviar.
Unfortunately, Evans Fish Farm hasn’t yet met the FWS’s conditions for selling beluga caviar, even though the aquafarm raises beluga sturgeon. To be able to sell beluga caviar in the United States, you need to show a commitment to growing the numbers of the endangered species worldwide.
So why is it so difficult to get your hands on beluga caviar if you live in the United States? This leads back to 2005, when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided to ban imports of the product.
Despite its nearly complete lack of production of the luxury good, the United States used to consume more than half of the world’s beluga caviar; over 60% of it, in fact.
In spite of this, beluga caviar wasn’t the most widely consumed type of caviar in the United States. Due to its high price, beluga caviar’s consumption in the US was superseded by sevruga and osetra caviar. However, these types of sturgeon weren’t immediately endangered by their caviar’s overconsumption.
In the period between 1985 and 2005, the Caspian Sea’s stocks of beluga caviar have fallen significantly. Over 90% of the fish’s population disappeared during that period, and the US FWS decided that something needed to be done to curb the huge demand for beluga caviar.
The 2005 ban wasn’t the first time that the United States banned the import of beluga caviar, but it was the first permanent one. Before this treaty, the United States had temporarily banned beluga imports to comply with international treaties on the trafficking of endangered animals.
One of the main reasons that the 2005 ban had to be passed was due to the breakdown of the strict caviar regulations in the wake of the Soviet Union’s downfall in the early 1990s. When the Soviet Union fell, previously organized and regulated beluga caviar farms started to run unregulated.
Along with a lack of regulations in the official farms, plenty of black market beluga caviar harvesters started to pop up around the Caspian Sea. This contributed to the immense overfishing of the species in the 1990s, which led to a severe drop in the beluga sturgeon population.
Since Russia and the other countries around the Caspian Sea didn’t look like they were getting any closer to tightening their restrictions at the time, the FWS decided that it had to take action before the US directly contributed to the destruction of a species.
In 2005, the beluga sturgeon situation was so dire that fisheries were catching fish at an 85% lower rate than they did at their respective peaks.
In fact, the beluga caviar situation got so bad at one point that over 33% of fisheries that got started at the time ended up failing due to a lack of beluga sturgeon in their nets. Before passing the beluga caviar ban, the United States attempted to reach out to fisheries in the Caspian Sea.
Since most of the fisheries and fish farms were uncooperative and didn’t respond to the United States’ inquiries about their conservation efforts, they were unable to take less drastic measures.
However, countries in the Black Sea had been a little more cooperative with the United States. Notably, fisheries in Georgia, Serbia, and Montenegro provided their conservation data to the FWS. While beluga caviar is largely associated with the Caspian Sea, Black Sea fisheries had risen to the forefront at the time.
In 2005, Black Sea caviar farms provided about 40% of the beluga caviar imports to the United States. Unfortunately, some bodies believe that the 2005 ban on beluga caviar came too late, as the population of beluga sturgeon had fallen to the point that it would be very difficult to repair.
The first demand for a ban on beluga caviar trade in the USA came in 2000. This came in the form of a petition by the group Caviar Emptor. Caviar Emptor was a coalition consisting of several environmental groups focusing on the plight that sturgeon are facing because of the caviar industry.
When it was originally put in place the 2005 ban on beluga caviar wasn’t intended to be permanent. The ban was only supposed to last until worldwide populations of beluga sturgeon started to show some improvement.
Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t improved sufficiently over the course of the past 16 years for the ban to be revoked. In 2005, the FWS stated that they would continue a “bilateral discussion” between the United States and countries that were producing caviar in the Caspian Sea.
It seems like those discussions haven’t gone as well as the FWS would have preferred since we haven’t seen a change in the treaty since it was passed into law. Along with these discussions, the FWS created several conditions under which beluga caviar could be sold in the United States.
These are the very conditions for the repopulation of beluga sturgeon that Sturgeon Aquafarms has been following to ensure that they remain allowed to sell their delicacy in the country. The main responsibility that US caviar farms have on their shoulders is the donation of fertilized sturgeon eggs to beluga sanctuaries.
Along with the bans that the United States has placed on the import of caviar, the UN has been managing caviar exports for the past two decades. This is all in accordance with CITES (The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
While this treaty is a mouthful, it’s also responsible for the preservation of many species, including beluga sturgeon.
Much like the United States, the UN requested information about various countries’ beluga sturgeon stocks to determine how much they had to limit exports. The info was requested from various states that had signed the CITES convention, including Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.
Between 2006 and 2007, the critical level of beluga sturgeon populations in these countries led to the UN instituting a freeze on the trade of beluga caviar worldwide. During this time, exports of the delicacy were made illegal worldwide, though the export ban was lifted in early 2007.
Unfortunately, despite the worldwide ban on the export of beluga caviar, beluga sturgeon populations somehow still fell during that one-year period. This shows that black market sturgeon production was still in swing and that some countries potentially didn’t comply with the ban as stringently as they were supposed to.
When the ban was lifted, the Caspian Sea countries complying with the CITES convention were limited to combined exports of only 8300 lbs of beluga caviar for the year. The re-commencement of beluga caviar trade was condemned by many individuals, including the co-founder of Caviar Emptor, Ellen Pikitch.
At the time, advocacy groups mentioned that the UN should adopt a more organized approach to convincing countries to improve their stocks of sturgeon before allowing them to trade caviar. This is similar to the plan that the FWS uses to certify beluga caviar sellers in the United States, so it looks like we’re making some forward progress.