Something Fishy

A bubbling demand for Missouri caviar spawns cutthroat competition.

A fringe of February ice clings to a riverbank along the Mississippi, tiny frozen tapestries fanning out from the concrete ramp. Stroking his bedraggled beard and sizing up the water level, Ron Hall begins to launch his 24-foot-long johnboat. He prays today's catch will be better than the last one. "I did not catch one minnow," Hall mutters. "I have not seen it like that before. I could always catch something; maybe not what I wanted, but something."

The flat-bottomed craft barely rocks when Hall gingerly steps in. Short and grizzled, he sports a blue cotton shirt, Army-green rubber overalls and large sunglasses. Hall heads for a sandy bank below Lock 22 at Saverton, eighteen miles from his home in Center, Missouri. The temperature hovers near freezing and the river is still. Hall unloads a portable heater and two empty buckets, then begins untangling his handmade net, which is the length of a football field.

"I fish 99 percent by myself," the 69-year-old Hall chuckles. "There ain't nobody to put up with me, I guess." He proceeds to the steering wheel, fires up the engine and peels away for the river's midsection.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg

Hall eyes a placid site to start fishing. His territory differs every day in accordance with the ever-shifting water flow, the wind and the weather. When the cold comes in, Hall notes, "the fish'll just lay down, and you can't touch 'em."

He settles on a spot a thousand yards from the dam. For the next four hours he'll float, dropping one end of his net into the water and motoring backwards so the net shimmies out the bow. His first retrieval reveals a slender, khaki-colored shovelnose sturgeon. She's dead, her belly slit wide open. Another female, this one alive and with a green stripe streaking her stomach, flops into the boat's bottom. Little else besides driftwood and leaves ever breaks the water's surface.

"I wish the season would end fifteen days later in the spring," Hall announces. Sturgeon don't start running until the water warms up to maybe 45 degrees, he adds, usually by late April at the earliest. The season is brief, ending May 15. "If you get a late spring, the season stops before you get anything!"

Shovelnose sturgeon are a furtive bunch, so adept at hiding on the river's bottom that they're impossible to lure with a rod. Older than the dinosaur, the shovelnose is one of the more unsightly marine creatures. With prehistoric-looking mugs and ornery dispositions, these ugly bottom-feeders nonetheless produce one of the world's most coveted delicacies: caviar.

The shovelnose reach sexual maturity late in life; years can pass between their spawns. Though they lay millions of eggs, the chances of one hatching are remote. Such unusual life cycles, biologists say, make shovelnose vulnerable to extinction.

Hall is one of a dozen Missourians fishing for shovelnose, the last lucrative catch for the state's commercial fishermen now that other profitable species, such as catfish, have been banned. Russian and Iranian Caspian Sea caviars have always been considered the world's finest. But a global shortage, owing to the overfishing of the Caspian's beluga sturgeon, is making the Mississippi and Missouri rivers once again a nexus for the caviar trade.

The local roe was in vogue only twice during the last century; both times, fishermen nearly exterminated the caviar-producing fish. Now that gourmets are once again hungering for Missouri caviar, wars have erupted among fishermen, and clandestine behavior pervades every layer of the industry. The Missouri Department of Conservation, meanwhile, has launched its own battle. Conservationists fear shovelnose populations are dangerously dwindling and are trying to convince Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee to tighten Mississippi River fishing regulations.

It is a move that has fishermen like Hall fuming. "I don't care if they put every fisherman in the world on the river -- they can't catch all the fish!"

Caviar's mere mention conjures an image of enviable elegance: crystal coupes of black gold mounted atop ice pillows, mother-of-pearl spoons, Champagne and tuxedo-clad waiters.

In many ways caviar's allure stems from its scarcity. For three centuries, state-owned monopolies in the Caspian Sea region -- especially Russia -- controlled the international caviar trade by keeping prices and fish stocks in check. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, however, the trade became a free-for-all. Men from all walks of life suddenly started sturgeon-fishing for quick cash, and rampant illegal fishing ensued.

U.S. caviar dealers had frequently targeted North American fish as a replacement for Caspian caviar when ailing relations with Iran and Russia restricted the flow of premium caviars. But for most of the 1990s, after Mikhail Gorbachev left the Soviet helm, no one paid much attention to American caviar. After all, Caspian roe was cheaper and more abundant than ever.

By 1998 it became evident that unbridled overfishing had largely depleted the Caspian Sea sturgeon. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed sturgeon as endangered, imposed strict export regulations on Caspian roe and encouraged conservation agencies to crack down on caviar trafficking.

For the next few years, American caviar dealers operated on life-support. Some purchased small amounts of Caspian caviar at steep prices. (A three-quarter ounce of beluga, the most expensive, currently retails for $278 at the prominent caviar boutique and restaurant Petrossian in New York and Paris.) Some traded on a thriving black market. And many dealers, from California to Georgia to Maine, began touting domestic caviar as an affordable, savory alternative to Caspian versions.

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