Caviar Price Soars in Wake of Soviet Restraint

ALL that glitters, as the Bard once said, is not gold. Try caviar. As the rich, famous, and well-dined of the world know only too well, the price of caviar is skyrocketing - more than $1,000 for a 14 oz. tin of imported premium-grade caviar from the Soviet Union. And the soaring rise in price is not because of some fishy conspiracy, but in large part because of Soviet conservation efforts and a United States government ban on Iranian caviar.

Caviar is the salted eggs of sturgeon and other large fish.

Traditionally, only two nations of the world have been major caviar-exporting countries: the Soviet Union and Iran. In October 1987, the Reagan administration imposed a ban on Iranian caviar due to Tehran's anti-US political policies. Meanwhile, the Soviets, concerned about overfishing in the Caspian Sea, the main breeding ground for Russian sturgeon, have been limiting harvesting of that particular fish.

The upshot: Caviar connoisseurs have suddenly found that the little black stuff - used as an appetizer by folks of particularly well-cultivated palates - is suddenly very, very expensive.

On July 1, the wholesale price of premium-grade beluga caviar jumped from $399 to $693, notes Arnold Hansen-Sturm, president of Hansen Caviar Company. This firm, based in Englewood, N.J., is one of the major caviar importer/suppliers in the US.

``At the retail level that amounts to over $1,000,'' says Mr. Hansen-Sturm. The 14 oz. size, incidentally, rather than the common 16 oz. tin size familiar to most North Americans, stems from old Russian measurements.

Hansen-Sturm is the fifth generation of his family to be in the caviar business. He is quick to assure consumers that despite limitations on some premium Soviet caviar such as beluga caviar, and stepped up world demand for caviar - ``excellent grades continue to be available.''

There are three species for sturgeon caviar: beluga (the largest in size, and increasingly limited, given Soviet conservation efforts), osetra (medium-sized), and sevruga. Color of the product can range from black (beluga) to brownish-gold (osetra). Beluga sturgeon, says Hansen-Sturm, ``take 18 years to reach maturity and can live for over 100 years.'' Some beluga-watchers believe that, in about five years, the caviar of the species may not be commercially available at all, given conservation efforts as well as over-harvesting in recent years.

The US, of course, is also a major caviar producer, with the product primarily harvested in the Southeast and California. And in terms of total tonnage, US caviar tends to be the most available product found on the grocery shelf. The US produces between 55 and 65 metric tons of just sturgeon caviar alone, which costs about $125 for a 14 oz. tin, compared with about $265 for imported Soviet sevruga.

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