Russian caviar under threat

2006-05-08 11:56
Moscow - It can be a delicacy or status symbol, a cure-all, or even an aphrodisiac, but ecologists are warning that Russian caviar could disappear altogether as the Caspian Sea's sturgeon population reaches dangerously low levels.

The WWF conservation group has for the past few months waged a campaign to persuade Russians to give up their caviar habit for six years to allow sturgeon numbers time to recover.

"You wouldn't want your children to forget forever the taste of caviar would you? Then stop buying it for six years," is the message from the WWF, which says the sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea has dropped to just one fortieth of what it was 15 years ago.

Dams, poaching

Caviar, as much a symbol of Russia as "the balalaika, Russian dolls, vodka and the Kalashnikov", now risks extinction, the WWF warns.

Sturgeon numbers went into decline in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union embarked on a programme of dam-building, preventing the fish from reaching their breeding grounds and leading to a 25% drop in stocks.

Then in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis led to a sharp increase in poaching in the Volga Delta, an activity the authorities largely turned a blind eye to.

The poachers, who paid little heed to the age and size of the fish they caught, caused a further sturgeon decline.

Today, Russians consume a 1000 tons of caviar a year, a massive 92% of it poached, according to figures provided by the WWF. Russia's agriculture ministry puts the figure at 1 200 tons, most of it acquired illegally.


A recent survey showed that Russians still view caviar, the subject of many old wives' tales, as a healthy food. It is rich in protein, has aphrodisiac qualities, slows the effects of alcohol and "improves life", Russians believe.

Orthodox Russia took to caviar as a replacement for meat during Lent in the Middle Ages, at a time when Europeans were still feeding it to their pigs, banning its consumption for 200 days of the year.

Long the preserve of poor Orthodox Russians, it was not until the era of Catherine the Great in the 18th century that caviar seduced the aristocracy. The Bolsheviks nationalised its production in 1919.

During the Soviet era, Russia was responsible for 90% of the world's caviar and it was readily available to the country's citizens. But in the 1960s it disappeared from the shelves, becoming a "rare" delicacy reserved for the political elite.

Caviar increasingly expensive

"At that time with a tin of caviar you could get tickets to the Bolshoi or pay a surgeon," recalls Valeria Odesskaya, 70.

With the market economy, everything changed. Today, caviar is becoming increasingly expensive, but it is available everywhere, for $30 per 100 grams in the market or for $100 per 100 grams in luxury stores.

But Russians still believe in the magical health benefits of caviar. "It's written into our genetic memory," says Odesskaya, who declares herself proud to still be able to buy a tin of caviar from time to time, "thanks to my son".


Read News24’s Comments Policy

Inside News24


Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go! - shop online today

Deal of the week!

Petrol generators from R1399, save up to R350. While stocks last. Shop now!

30% off Pampers!

Save 30% when you buy 3 or more selected pampers products. While stocks last. Shop now!

This week only - 30% off books!

Get 30% off when you buy 2 or more books. Many titles to choose from. While stocks last. Shop now!

New range of Samsung smartphones!

Samsung Galaxy A3, A5 and Alpha now available at while stocks last. Shop now!

Buy 3 eBooks & only pay for 2!

The cheapest of the 3 titles will be free. Many more titles to choose from. While stocks last. Shop now!


You are very people sensitive today and there is a tendency to put too much energy on service and outer obligations. The more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.