The sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that has roamed the earth’s waters for more than 250 million years. In the earliest known consumption of caviar, it was highly revered and especially prized by Russia’s ruling class. Once caviar became a staple at the Imperial Court, Russian royalty was known to consume large amounts daily.
Because sturgeon were so large and difficult to catch, their eggs were in high demand. Those fortunate enough to catch sturgeon proudly displayed the live fish to their guests before their feast. It soon became regular practice to carry caviar while traveling to Paris and other European cities.
In the early 1900s, the United States became the world’s largest producer of caviar. Sturgeon roe was so plentiful that it was often discarded or fed to pets. Local pub owners served salted caviar with onions to encourage patrons to consume more beverages, a precursor to the modern practice of serving pretzels and peanuts in bars.
The sturgeon population in the United States rapidly became depleted as the species was overfished. This led to a 1906 ban on commercial sturgeon fishing. Since that ban, sturgeon may be caught only by sport fishermen, and the species has become heavily monitored and regulated.
Similar to the U.S. sturgeon population, sturgeon in the Caspian Sea became depleted by commercial fishing over the course of the 20th century. The Soviet Union began to regulate commercial sturgeon fishing and went so far as to ban open sea fishing temporarily in 1962. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) recognizes the sturgeon as an endangered species.
Today, there are only 2 million Huso Huso sturgeon (Beluga) worldwide. In 2005, the United States banned the importation of wild Beluga caviar to the United States. Fortunately, farmed caviar, active sturgeon hatchery programs and strictly monitored wild catch quotas protect the viability of the species while offering a sustainable and lasting means to the enjoyment of this fabled delicacy.