BOISE — With the federal government's ban on beluga caviar from the Black Sea basin taking effect just before the busy holiday season, all eyes are turning to — Idaho?
The state's burgeoning aquaculture industry is hoping its farm-raised white sturgeon caviar will help fill the gap left by beluga on upscale menus. Several Idaho caviar farmers are starting their first commercial harvest this week.
"It really comes at a good time for us," said Linda Lemmon, secretary of the Idaho Aquaculture Association and owner of Blind Canyon Aquaranch, a trout and sturgeon farm near Hagerman. "We are really getting our first caviars on the market, so this will hopefully be a positive aspect for us."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have listed beluga sturgeon populations as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. On Oct. 28, the agency said imports of beluga sturgeon would no longer be allowed from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey and Ukraine. The ban is in addition to the agency's announcement on Sept. 30 that it was suspending all trade in the beluga sturgeon's caviar and meat from the Caspian Sea.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the bans would continue "until there is significant progress" with conservation programs in the Caspian and Black Sea regions.
The ban and the rumors that preceded it have driven up prices, said Betsy Sherrow, the president of the gourmet retail store Seattle Caviar Co. Sherrow was on her way to Europe to inspect and purchase beluga when the ban was announced, and she had to cancel her trip.
"The price for everything has gone up," Sherrow said. "In fact, our cost has doubled. The market price for Black Sea beluga last Christmas was $98 an ounce, and this Christmas it will probably be close to $200. We haven't established pricing yet because we just don't know."
Sherrow's biggest seller is osetra caviar, the roe that white sturgeon is most commonly compared to. Sherrow and her husband, Dale Sherrow, have been meeting regularly with Idaho fish farmers in hopes of buying any and all of the caviar available.
"In fact, my husband is going to Hagerman next Monday to check on the product. We'd be more than happy to buy the production," she said.
Breaking into the industry is no small feat. It takes anywhere from eight to 12 years for a sturgeon to mature sufficiently to produce the prized eggs, so would-be caviar growers must spend a decade caring for the creatures before they have any chance at a profit, said Leo Ray, the owner of Fish Breeders of Idaho.
"We have one person right now wanting to buy everything we've got, and we haven't really advertised or promoted it," Ray said. He expects to harvest about 700 pounds of caviar a year for the next few years; four years from now his harvest is expected to increase to several thousand pounds. Each female sturgeon is expected to provide about seven pounds of caviar, he said.
"Beluga sets the standard for all caviar, and white sturgeon comes in a class right below it," Ray said. "It's possibly the second-best in the world, and there is a chance that being farm-raised, we can raise that to the best."
Ultimately, Lemmon said, she'd like to see Idaho caviar become a brand sought after by average consumers as well as industry gourmets, much like the state's more-famous spuds.
"We joke a bit: Are we the only state that can do surf and turf? And pairing Idaho caviar on a boiled red potato is one way people like to serve it, or on homegrown Idaho wheat bread," Lemmon said. "We'd certainly like to have an Idaho brand, and at the same time we would like anyone who buys white sturgeon — whether from Idaho or California — to know that they're getting a top quality."
California companies also are feeling the beluga ban boost.
Kim North, a manager with Sterling Caviar near Sacramento, Calif., said her company has seen a 30 percent jump in orders this year because of the ban. The increased demand came with climbing prices. Sterling's highest grade white sturgeon caviar now costs $70 an ounce, compared to $48 last year.
"The demand has really increased, and this is when everybody's preparing for the holiday season. Thanksgiving has become quite popular for caviar, and typically October, November and December are our biggest months," North said. "Your average consumer is becoming quite aware of the fact that sturgeon are native to America, and once they do experience American caviar it's quite obvious that our product is comparable to the Caspian product."