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Have you ever tasted a living fossil? Odds are the answer is probably not, unless you’re a die-hard caviar enthusiast. But that expression—living fossil—is how experts categorize modern-day sturgeon, some 29 species that make up the Acipenseridae family, due to the gradual evolution of these fish over the past million years. In fact, the earliest sturgeon fossils date back to the Middle Jurassic era, so it will come as no surprise that caviar sourced from beluga fish, which are a particularly rare species of sturgeon, is incredibly expensive and hard to come by. While caviar is most often sourced from the frigid waters of the Caspian Sea, there is only one place to legally purchase beluga caviar in the U.S.: Bascome, Florida.
Where Is Beluga Caviar Raised in the U.S.?
Sturgeon AquaFarms, located in northern Florida along the borders of Alabama and Georgia, was founded by Mark Zaslavsky and Mark Gelman in 2001 with the mission of protecting and preserving endangered sturgeon species. After the U.S. banned the import of all beluga products in 2005, due to concern over the species’ extinction, Sturgeon AquaFarms became the only legal supplier of beluga caviar and meat in the country, because they breed all of their sturgeon on-site from a handful of fish that were brought over from the Caspian Sea via a staggering 13 trans-atlantic flights before the ban was implemented. As of June 15, 2016, the company earned its right as the only U.S.-based provider of beluga sturgeon caviar, approved for interstate sale—but the owners have had to meet several conditions, one of which is aiding in restoration of the suffering wild beluga population. The company’s sustainably built facility sits upon an aquifer, which provides the fish with drinking-grade water to live in—the same water that Floridians drink (these are some seriously high-maintenance fish).
What Makes Beluga Caviar So Unique?
So what makes beluga caviar different from other types of sturgeon caviar? The fish itself is known historically as one of the largest fresh-water fish found in the wild, having reached astounding weights of more than 3,000 pounds on rare occasions. Average-sized beluga sturgeon run closer to 150-200 pounds, though. Similarly, beluga roe is quite large compared to other types of caviar, and often has a distinct, pale grey or black color. As with all kinds of caviar, the flavor varies from fish to fish, but beluga caviar tends to taste buttery, slightly briny or nutty, and incredibly smooth.
How Much Does Beluga Caviar Cost?
Unsurprisingly, enjoying caviar from this ancient fish is going to cost you. Purchased at Sturgeon AquaFarms’ retail store, Marky’s, beluga caviar runs from $843 for a 32.5 ounce tin—and it’s often sold out. In addition to beluga caviar, Sturgeon AquaFarms sells products like fresh meat and fertilized eggs from Sevruga, Sterlet Russian Osetra, and Siberian sturgeons as well.
What to Know About Wild Beluga Conservation
So, how is the wild beluga population faring around the world? The short answer is that things are slowly getting better, thanks to the conservation efforts of organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the Life for Danube Sturgeons project. But Oceana.org still considers wild beluga sturgeon to be critically endangered and highly vulnerable for extinction. Unfortunately, the biggest threat to wild sturgeon is poaching and illegal distribution of sturgeon meat and caviar—the fish are especially vulnerable (easy to spot) as they prepare to spawn upriver. That’s why conservationists are working tirelessly to restore this indigenous species back to a functional, self-sustaining population by ensuring that beluga return safely to their natural habitat. For example, in June 2020 more than 7,000 beluga sturgeon were released into the Danube River, which is the only river in the EU with naturally reproducing wild sturgeon populations. As they enter the river, the sturgeon migrate all the way to the Black Sea, and each sturgeon is tagged so that the WWF and its scientific partners can track and study the behavior and migration patterns of the young sturgeon.