Foodies rejoice: Iranian caviar might be back on store shelves once again. Thanks to the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, trade sanctions imposed on the Gulf state are beginning to lift, including one that banned the import of the delicate salt-cured sturgeon eggs that are synonymous with luxury.
Iran and caviar go way back; caviar is actually a Persian word. Iran has made a name for itself as the largest caviar exporter in the world thanks to its proximity to the Caspian Sea, where fishing the spawning sturgeon has been a long-held tradition. But beyond tradition, Iranian caviar is popular with connoisseurs because of the Caspian’s brackish water, which imparts an unusual flavor to the tiny eggs—one that can’t be found anywhere else, Martha C. White reports for NBC News.
It’s a serious business: A one-ounce tin of caviar will cost you at least $70 and the best can retail for up to $150, Tim Fernholz reports for Quartz. But ever since 2010 sanctions forbade American businesses from importing Iranian caviar, the industry has plummeted. Where Iran once exported more than 40 tons of caviar each year, last year it only sold about one, Ali Dareini reports for the Associated Press.
“Ten years ago, I would tell you we get all our caviar from Russia and Iran,” Alexandre Petrossian, the vice president of his family’s caviar company tells Fernholz. “Right now, it’s very different.”
That doesn’t mean that Americans have gone without: The United States imported about six tons of the tiny fish eggs worth $7.6 million last year, Fernholz reports. These days, the United States imports caviar from a variety of countries that includes Germany, Uruguay and Israel, White reports.
Even so, just because sanctions against caviar have relaxed, doesn’t mean that Iranian purveyors are in the clear. The same sturgeons that are prized for their eggs are on the verge of extinction from overfishing. In the United States, it is currently illegal to sell wild caviar, White reports.
"There are 27 species of sturgeon and their close relative, the paddlefish, and… all these species are in trouble," Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University tells White. "They're extremely susceptible to overfishing."
These days, all sturgeon caviar in the United States is farmed from fish in captivity. If Iranian fishermen want to start their own caviar farms, it takes time and a lot of effort, since sturgeon take about 12 years to mature enough to start producing eggs. But for the lucky few who have been developing fisheries in anticipation of this day, the windfall could be tremendous.
“Our annual, projected hard-currency earnings in 2018 will be equal to the value of two days of Iran’s crude-oil exports,” Ishaq Islami, who manages the Ghareh Boron Caviar Fish Farm tells Dareini.
Islami says he believes that fish farming on the Caspian Sea could bring in about $90 million a year, between caviar, sturgeon meat and tourists interested to see how the fish eggs are prepared. If farms like this can figure out how to raise the fish sustainably, Iran might soon be able to move away from relying on oil exports and once again find themselves rich in another kind of black gold.