No-Kill Caviar Could Make Luxury Less Expensive

Given a particular protein and a nice massage, sturgeon give up their eggs without giving up their lives

Caviar Premshree Pillai

Everything about caviar is decadent; the tiny containers with the outrageous price tags, the mother of pearl utensils used to serve it, and the methodical assembly of blini and crème fraîche. It is an indulgence not just because of the price, but because it usually involves the death of a sturgeon. But not always.

Marine biologist Angela Köhler told Civil Eats

“Normally they have to kill the fish to harvest immature eggs for caviar production. Because they are surrounded by a network of cells which stabilize the egg,“ says Köhler. “If you strip the eggs out out of the belly without killing the fish, and the eggs touch water, they’re basically inedible.” 

Shocked by the waste of killing decades-old fish for eggs (and seeing harvested eggs and fish get discarded when the eggs weren’t harvested at the right time), Köhler developed a method for harvesting caviar without killing the fish. Köhler’s method is called Vivace, and is being marketed to caviar producers around the world. First the sturgeon get ultrasounds, to determine when the eggs are ready for harvesting. Then they're administered a protein that releases the eggs into the fish's body cavity. The eggs are then massaged out.

Korea and Latvia use other, similar methods to extract the fish. Caesarean sections aren’t uncommon,either, though critics say that the incision can harm the fish and its ability to produce more eggs. 

Prices for humane caviar remain high, at about $125 per ounce. But some people think that being able to produce more eggs over a fish’s lifetime could drive down prices as the supply grows. But will caviar-lovers take to the stuff? NPR did a taste test to find out:

The Salt sampled the Vivace caviar alongside more traditional styles at Keane's tasting room. The traditional caviar from Acipenser baerii, the Siberian sturgeon, was creamy and buttery, with a pronounced flavor of brine, sardines and smoked salmon.

A similar product made from the eggs of A. transmontanus, the white sturgeon of Western North America, was also buttery smooth, with a salty flavor and an interesting finish of pond water and river fish.

The Vivace A. baerii caviar was entirely different. The tiny black eggs did not melt in the mouth but, rather, popped. Flavor was faint and subdued, with quiet hints of salt marsh and catfish. It was not our favorite of the three.

So, like so many ethical choices, this one may involve a compromise.

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