A tough roe to hoe

Marketplace Staff Jan 1, 2007

BOB MOON:The very fanciest of those parties we just heard about might treat revelers to that salty delicacy known as caviar. But they’re probably not serving Beluga.

Caviar imports from the Black and Caspian seas have been banned for the past year now, and stockpiled supplies have pretty much run out.In case you haven’t priced a 50 gram jar of Beluga caviar lately, it can now easily set you back four or five hundred dollars.

Imports are banned since the Beluga sturgeon stock over there has been fished nearly to extinction. American caviar producers have been more than happy to fill the void. But, as Mhari Saito reports, the boom has created some unexpected trouble for Midwestern roe fishermen.

MHARI SAITO: If you’d have asked Joel Assouline ten years ago if he’d feature American caviar in his Philadelphia gourmet stores, he would have laughed. Now, he’s touting a complete line of domestic caviars.

JOEL ASSOULINE: So we wanna to start with the first one, which is the Missouri hackleback. And you can look at it — there are little round black pearls.

The difference now is that U.S. caviar is actually good. Wholesalers like Assouline have worked with fishermen to improve how they catch and salt the delicacy. Assouline’s now boasts a full line of U.S. caviars priced between 20 and $40 an ounce.

ASSOULINE: That’s really clearly the only reasonable alternative now. You know the ban has a tremendous effect on the market. The prices have just skyrocketed.

Most of America’s wild caviar comes from Midwestern states that still allow roe harvest from river fish like Shovelnose Sturgeon. Even this, one of the lowest quality caviars, can bring in serious money. A five-pound bucket gets fishermen like William Matlick and his son Michael a hundred and fifty dollars.

WILLIAM MATLICK: We have caught…

MICHAEL MATLICK: 10 buckets.

WILLIAM MATLICK: Yeah, we have caught 10 buckets. Which is a lot of money.

Hauls like that are enough to keep the area’s shrinking commercial fishing industry afloat. The Matlicks harvest caviar on the rivers around St. Louis and southern Illinois from mid-September till June. The work supports Michael Matlick through the summer when all he can catch is 10 cents a pound carp and perch.

MICHAEL MATLICK: When September 15th comes around we’re all thanking the lord cuz we’re broke by then, completely broke.

But as demand for American caviar increases, so does concern for the fish.

On a boat in the Mississippi River, Jim Garvey helps researchers pull in gill nets. The Southern Illinois University professor untangles a prehistoric-looking Shovelnose Sturgeon while his students pull in the net’s weights.

JIM GARVEY: Actually a few of these fish we’re gonna take back with us and Sarah’s going to analyse them for their reproductive status.

Garvey’s been collecting data for five years. A few months ago he crunched the numbers. When he saw the results, he said he thought he’d throw up. He found that as more female fish were caught, the population of Shovelnose Sturgeon young had dropped fast. It’s a classic warning sign of a fishery moving towards collapse.

GARVEY: Fish have a lot of eggs and a lot of babies — and typically in most fisheries around the world you don’t usually pick up those patterns until the population has gotten very small.

Conservation officials in Missouri say their data also shows caviar fishermen having an impact on river Sturgeon. That’s why Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky want to shorten the season by about two months and allow fishermen to catch only middle-sized fish.

Rob Maher manages commercial fishing for Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources.

ROB MAHER: With the interest in it, with the price increasing, with the position this product’s taken in the global market, I think there’s probably a need to be proactive here and keep measures in place that ensure this is a sustainable fishery.

While scientists worry whether the regulations are strong enough, caviar fishermen are fuming. They see plenty of fish and are skeptical of new scientific data. Shovelnose Sturgeon aren’t listed as federally endangered or threatened. And because proposed new rules cut out caviar’s best weeks, fishering veteran William Matlick worries young fishermen like his son, Michael, are the real endangered species on the Mississippi River.

WILLIAM MATLICK: If we have to do without that money, there won’t be enough money to feed your family, and you’ve got no new people coming in to replace the old fishermen that’s going out or dying off.

Local officials say they’re trying to balance the needs of the fishermen and the fish they depend on. But should the ban on caviar from the Black and Caspian seas continue to put pressure on American sturgeon, some conservation officials say they will recommend even stricter regulations.

In Southern Illinois, I’m Mhari Saito for Marketplace.

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