Is No-Kill Caviar Ethical?
Caviar, at one time the fanciest food of them all, might be tasty (depending on who you ask) but it’s never been very ethical. Now, a new technique is giving us no-kill caviar. But do we want it?
The new no-kill caviar is attained through a technique of massaging the ripe eggs from a female sturgeon — without killing or cutting the fish open. Not only is this better in the no-kill way, it also makes caviar more abundant, affordable and accessible. Angela Köhler, the German scientist who spent nine years developing the new production system, says no-kill caviar “could help reduce demand for black market caviar and save endangered wild sturgeon from being hunted to extinction.”
The idea behind the new technique, according to NPR.org, “is to turn the caviar farming industry into something more akin to the commercial production of poultry, eggs or milk. The new method, being practiced at a small farm in Loxstedt, Germany, involves first viewing a sturgeon’s eggs by ultrasound. If they are deemed ready, a signaling protein is administered to the sturgeon several days before the egg harvest.” This, Köhler says, “induces labor” and releases the eggs from a membranous sack in the belly cavity. Then, the eggs can be pumped from the belly with gentle massaging. The process, called the Vivace method, can be repeated every 15 months or so throughout a sturgeon’s lifetime, which may last decades.
The method would replace what’s been done in the past, which was basically considered “C-section caviar” production. For this, a small incision is made in the female fish to access her eggs. While this operation allows the producer to harvest the roe without using any chemicals to induce egg-laying, it subjects a sturgeon to the risk of fatal infection and can damage the fish’s ovaries, reducing future roe yields.
“[The Vivace method] will make caviar production more financially reasonable,” Köhler says. “It doesn’t make much sense to take a fish that needs seven or eight years to mature and then, when it has its first eggs, kill it.”
“The Vivace farm in Loxstedt produced only about 1,100 pounds of caviar last year,” Köhler says. “If demand grows, output could eventually rise to 10 tons per year.”
She also points out that if others adopt this method, “caviar farming could become a relatively cheap endeavor. Supply could increase as prices dive. In the end, low-priced no-kill caviar could undercut the market for illegally produced wild sturgeon caviar.”
So what’s the downside? Basically, skeptics doubt that no-kill caviar will catch on. Geno Evans, owner of a farm in Pierson, Fla., has tried making caviar without killing his fish in the past and says he wasn’t impressed with the output. “In order to massage the roe from the fish’s body cavity,” he explains, “you have to wait until a sturgeon is nearly ready to lay her eggs. For Evans, this resulted in overly oily, soft caviar.” “[The eggs] were mushy,” he tells The Salt. “It was gross. It wasn’t caviar.”
The Salt sampled Vivace caviar alongside more traditional styles at Keane’s tasting room. Their verdict? “The traditional caviar from Acipenser baerii, the Siberian sturgeon, was creamy and buttery, with a pronounced flavor of brine, sardines and smoked salmon.”
There’s also the question of price. Right now, an ounce of Vivace costs $125 to $135 in Keane’s shop, compared to the conventional price today: $105 an ounce. A custom-packed jar of Vivace ‘golden caviar,’ taken from albino fish, will fetch up to $800 per ounce. But Keane argues that if more farms adopt the Vivace method, “no-kill caviar could eventually become ’an everyday indulgence,’ bringing costs down to $20 or $30 per ounce.”
So what do you think? Do you eat caviar now? Would you be willing to try it out if you knew it was no-kill? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!