Roe Rage

Fish eggs, fish eggs roly-poly fish eggs; fish eggs, fish eggs, eat them up, yum

The blare of horns cut like sunlight through smog into the conversation I was having via cell phone. "Where are you?" asked the chef at the other end of the line.

"In New York, taking a cab from JFK to Manhattan," I replied.

"What are you doing there?"

"Having lunch."

Strictly speaking, this was the truth. I'd scrambled onto an early morning flight with bagel in one hand and laptop in the other, and intended to return to Miami in the late afternoon. This left me three lengthy hours in which to be fed at Restaurant rm.

The longer answer was that I was there to learn why I shouldn't be smacking my lips over any imported Caspian beluga, sevruga, or osetra caviar over the holiday season -- or any season, for that matter. And the economy has nothing to do with it.

Simply put, all Caspian Sea sturgeon, but particularly the beluga, are endangered to the point of extinction. According to representatives of SeaWeb (www.seaweb.org), who had organized a caviar roundtable discussion at rm that day, wild populations of Caspian sturgeon "have plummeted more than 90 percent in twenty years. And since the U.S. is the world's largest caviar importer, we are [largely] responsible."

To abrogate some of that responsibility, SeaWeb, a project designed to raise awareness of the world ocean, in conjunction with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami, launched the Caviar Emptor (CE) initiative in 2000. CE has been lobbying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than a year now to get beluga sturgeon, which declined in population by 39 percent from 2001 to 2002, protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

A decision to list beluga as an endangered species is expected soon. This designation would effectively halt the import of beluga caviar to the U.S. market, which accounts for 60 percent of all Russian caviar sales. It is an action that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), whose members recently claimed that the beluga population is recovering, seems unwilling or unable to take.

"The quota for beluga caviar exports should be zero. Any number above that is unwise and unsustainable," says Caviar Emptor member Dr. Ellen Pikitch, marine biologist and director of ocean strategy with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

"Overfishing and illegal trade to supply the global caviar market, along with habitat loss and pollution, have decimated sturgeon populations of the Caspian Sea," reads part of the campaign's mission statement. "Caviar Emptor recommends that consumers avoid beluga and other Caspian caviars and instead choose ocean-friendly American caviars from farm-raised white sturgeon, paddlefish, or rainbow trout."

In other words, consumer awareness -- CE is subtitled "let the connoisseur beware" -- is where the effort really counts. Enter rm, named for chef-proprietor Rick Moonen, who was the first restaurateur of some 1000 establishments to pull Caspian caviar from his menus. Moonen was also the chef primarily responsible for the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, which was so successful that, according to SeaWeb member Susan Boa, swordfish populations have increased significantly.

Boa calls Moonen "a true hero of the oceans." Who better, then, to learn about caviar options from than Moonen himself?

Indeed the samples of American paddlefish roe from L'Osage Caviar in Missouri, American white sturgeon caviar from Sterling Caviar in California (which is distributed by Petrossian of beluga fame), and rainbow trout caviar from Sunburst Trout Company in North Carolina were good enough to convince me that American caviar is a viable substitute for Caspian caviar, particularly when used in recipes such as Moonen's lobster club sandwich, which was layered with smoked sturgeon and shiny, nutty beads of Sterling white sturgeon caviar.

Instead of killing the fish to get the roe, companies such as Sterling perform surgery on the fish to harvest the eggs. About 85 percent of these fish survive to breed another day.

This also makes sense commercially, since a sturgeon's reproductive system is comparable to that of a human: A female won't start producing eggs until it is ten to fifteen years old. After waiting years for an inaugural "crop," killing the sturgeon, unless the meat is to be used as well, seems counterproductive. The sturgeon's long reproductive cycle is one of the reasons for the Caspian fish's dramatic decline -- poachers are catching and killing fish that haven't matured yet. "In short, they're killing babies and teenagers," Boa says. And nothing wipes out a population faster than offing the offspring before they have the opportunity to make some of their own.

As it turns out, I didn't have to go quite so far as JFK to learn about the Caspian sturgeon's reproductive cycles. I could have simply stopped at Miami International Airport (specifically the Lufthansa Cargo Warehouse), where Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman, owners of Marky's, the well-known Miami-based gourmet foods importer, were picking up their beluga -- live.

Last spring, the two Marks became the first to transport live Caspian beluga sturgeon, along with sevruga and osetra, to the U.S. as brood stock for their planned Sturgeon AquaFarms in Volusia County. Over the next few years, they aim to hatch about 500,000 beluga fry, raise them to reproductive age, and obtain the roe by surgical intervention.

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