You may have heard stories about how beluga caviar is one of the most expensive types of food in the world. However, have you ever wondered where this black gold comes from?
Where does beluga caviar come from? Beluga caviar comes from Beluga sturgeon that are in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian sea is located between Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan and has been an important trade route for centuries
Do beluga whales produce caviar? Is beluga whale caviar real? Despite the name, no, beluga caviar is not produced by beluga whales. Beluga caviar is harvested from the beluga sturgeon, which is one of the largest bony freshwater fish in the world.
Over the course of today’s guide, I’m going to explore why both of these very different aquatic animals share a name and I’m also going to take a look at how the reproductive systems of these animals differ.
Do Beluga Whales Produce Caviar?
Since most people are unaware that there are two water-based creatures named belugas, it makes sense that some would imagine that the whales are the ones producing caviar. There’s the beluga whale and the beluga caviar fish. Both these creatures’ names have the same root, as you’d imagine, and both originate from Russia.
The word beluga comes from the Russian word Belaya (or beliy), which means “white.” In the case of the beluga whale, it’s pretty obvious where the name came from. The beluga whale is one of the world’s smallest whales but it also has one of the whitest colorations that you’ll find in a cetacean (aquatic mammal).
On the other hand, the beluga sturgeon isn’t predominantly white, so the source of its name is a matter of at least some debate. While beluga sturgeon don’t tend to be as fully white as beluga whales, they also have a much whiter coloration than other sturgeon species, which are mainly a greyish brown.
Along the flanks and undersides of a beluga sturgeon, you’ll see the white patches that the fish species was named after. While it may not be as white as you’d expect based on the name, the white sections of the beluga sturgeon are responsible for giving it its relatively confusing name.
The name may also simply come from the fact that the beluga caviar fish and the whale come from the same parts of the world, so it’s easier to give the aquatic residents of the region the moniker ‘beluga.’ Whichever the reason, it’s important to differentiate the beluga whale from the fish, so you don’t accidentally ask for beluga whale eggs when shopping for caviar.
So, beluga caviar comes from what fish? The answer is – the beluga sturgeon, which isn’t the same as the beluga whale – the sturgeon is a fish, and the whale is an aquatic mammal. Beluga sturgeon caviar is one of the most expensive caviars in the world.
Biological Differences Between Beluga Whales and Beluga Sturgeon
|Beluga whale||Beluga sturgeon|
|Type of animal||Cetacean||Fish|
The reason why beluga whales can’t produce caviar is that they don’t even use the same kind of reproductive system that sturgeon do. This means that they can’t produce the eggs that will eventually become beluga sturgeon caviar. If you wonder do beluga whales lay eggs, the answer is no. Whales are mammals, and they don’t have to lay eggs to reproduce.
Whereas whales reproduce similarly to humans, giving birth to their offspring, beluga sturgeon take an entirely different approach in terms of reproduction and forming new life. For any species of sturgeon and most species of fish, fertilization is external, which means that the mother lays the eggs before the father fertilizes them.
Keep in mind that the eggs that become caviar are not harvested once they’ve been fertilized, though they have to be removed from the sturgeon, typically killing it. In the case of whales, this is impossible because the beluga eggs are more integral in their reproductive process and aren’t exactly palatable.
If you research caviar and fish roe that is typically used in things like sushi, you’ll find that they’re always harvested from oviparous animals instead of viviparous animals. This means that they are sourced from animals that tend to lay eggs that hatch into their offspring instead of giving live birth.
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Why is Beluga Caviar So Expensive?
Now that the beluga sturgeon vs beluga whale dilemma’s been resolved, you may have even more questions. If you didn’t know beluga sturgeon was a thing, you might have a different idea about beluga sturgeon caviar.
There are a few factors that go into making beluga caviar one of the most expensive foods you’ll find in the world, but the main factor is the long maturation process that the fish goes through. A typical beluga sturgeon maturation cycle can take up to 12 years, meaning that it can take over a decade to harvest beluga sturgeon caviar.
This creates a risky environment in which some caviar farms go under before they even see their first harvest. This also means that whenever something goes wrong in the farming process, caviar farms lose a significant amount of money, so caviar farming isn’t the most stable business that you can get into.
Another thing to consider is the rarity of the beluga sturgeon, which has, unfortunately, been growing rarer by the year. In fact, one of the main reasons why beluga caviar keeps getting more expensive is that the number of beluga sturgeon keeps dropping thanks to overfarming.
This has even led to the importation of beluga caviar being banned in the USA and many other worldwide efforts to conserve the species. This creates a domino effect in which the rarity of the fish makes it scarcer and the scarcity increases the price even further.
Does No-Kill Caviar Farming Exist?
Since sturgeon typically need to be killed to harvest caviar, that has resulted in an unprecedented drop in the species’ numbers, especially during the 1990s. During that decade, sturgeon saw the largest impact on their numbers in history, and it has only improved marginally since then.
Due to this, caviar farmers around the world sought to create no-kill caviar methods that could help bolster the number of sturgeon worldwide. Some methods are relatively advanced and require extensive training on the part of the harvester, like the surgical removal method used to ensure the fish’s survival.
Along with surgical removal of the eggs, other no-kill caviar harvesting methods include allowing the fish to lay its eggs and then reconstructing the membrane around the individual eggs. While most eggs become mushy when they’re spawned, this method allows them to be hardened once more.
Unfortunately, most of these methods are relatively recent innovations, and they’re nowhere near as reliable as many of the existing harvesting methods that are being used.
This means that the most popular way to harvest beluga sturgeon caviar remains the existing kill method that keeps depleting populations of sturgeon worldwide. Unfortunately, unless something is changed, you can expect the price of caviar to continue rising and the number of sturgeon to keep falling.
On the pessimistic side, this type of caviar may become such a rarity that it’ll become impossible to find, so much so that it may disappear from circulation almost completely. But, as mentioned, farmers and harvesters are working on non-kill methods, so we can only remain optimistic that a species as important as the beluga sturgeon doesn’t vanish from our planet.