A tin of caviar from the beluga sturgeon — an ugly, prehistoric-looking fish — is so expensive and rare that it’s become a symbol of the ultrarich, akin to a Rolex or Bentley. The slimy, black pearls can fetch prices up to $10,000 a pound, though the coveted Almas caviar from an albino sturgeon has sold for more than $15,000 a pound. For most people, the rationale behind those prices remain a mystery, but we dove deep to figure out why caviar has become such a pricey luxury good.
What Is Caviar?
Since the 4th century BCE, Persians have harvested fish eggs from the belly of the female beluga sturgeon, a delicacy that they called khâviyâr. The ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed the salty black sturgeon roe as part of their feasts, too; caviar’s reach also spread to England and Russia in the Middle Ages, where it became a favorite among royalty.
It was later, in the middle of the 20th century, that Americans acquired a taste for sturgeon roe as a salty bar snack, sparking a fish egg boom in the early 1900s that quickly decimated the mid-Atlantic sturgeon population.
That’s a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the modern history of caviar. Between the late 1970s and ‘90s, pollution and overfishing obliterated the supply of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, until the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) successfully pushed major producers to stop selling wild caviar in 1998.
Today, all (legally) purchased caviar in the U.S. is harvested at farms across the globe, with China producing the bulk of the world’s luxury roe. Coveted beluga caviar, imports of which have been banned in the U.S. since 2005, is now available thanks to a Florida company that received a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) exemption to farm the critically endangered fish.
How Much Is Caviar?
Although you can find salmon and trout roe marketed as caviar, true caviar comes from 27 species of sturgeon. Beluga caviar, specifically that of an old albino sturgeon from the southern Caspian sea, earned the Guinness World Record for the most expensive caviar, with just over two pounds selling for $34,500.
However, more common types of caviar can be found for around $50 to $100 per ounce, with American Hackleback being the cheapest variety.
Why Is Caviar So Expensive?
Now that you have a basic understanding of caviar, you might begin to understand why it’s so dang expensive. To put it simply, sturgeon is a rare, endangered fish that’s heavily regulated. But there is a whole list of factors that inflate caviar’s price:
Sturgeon Are Rare: Even as regulators have banned wild sturgeon trade, more than two-thirds of sturgeon species are critically endangered and nearing extinction. That’s in large part due to years of overfishing, pollution, and continued poaching, all of which are linked to the high demand of the caviar industry.
Sturgeon Take Years To Develop: Beluga sturgeon take 16 to 18 years before they reach sexual maturity and start producing caviar. While some species develop sooner, farmers still have to wait years before they can sell their product.
Sturgeon Are Sensitive: Sturgeon are prone to infection, which is particularly hard to avoid when growing them in crowded farms.
Extracting Caviar Is Difficult: Given caviar’s value, extracting the eggs from sturgeon is a delicate process that requires skill and patience.
The Bottom Line
Caviar producers in the 20th century seemed to be motivated by one thing: greed. Without thinking about the long-term environmental effects, they overfished and drove the 200-million-year-old species to the edge of extinction. Despite heavy regulations, the sturgeon population continues to dwindle, and as a result, prices for rare caviar continue to rise. Combine that with the time and money that goes into cultivating sturgeon eggs — we’re talking years — and you’ve got a recipe for one of the world’s most expensive foods.
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