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Craving Iranian Caviar? Better Find Something to Tide You Over

Even if sanctions end, Iran's coveted caviar won't land in the U.S. soon because of conservation- and import-related regulatory hurdles.
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Today is National Caviar Day, but you might want to hold off on popping the champagne if you’d like your sturgeon eggs to come from Iran.

Although an international agreement has been reached on the country’s nuclear program that would allow sanctions to be lifted, foodies will have to wait for their first taste of the delicacy thanks to a host of conservation- and import-related regulatory hurdles.

“We did carry Iranian caviar for a very long time here,” Nick Branchina, director of marketing at seafood company Browne Trading Co., fondly reminisced when asked about the holdup. “It was one of the best caviars globally, back in the day.”

Today, sturgeons are so close to extinction that pretty much the only way to get caviar legally from prized species like the Beluga and Osetra is from farmed fish. Purveyors of caviar in the United States import farmed caviar from countries as diverse as Uruguay, Israel and Germany.

“There are 27 species of sturgeon and their close relative, the paddlefish, and… all these species are in trouble,” said Ellen Pikitch, a Pew Fellow in marine conservation and a professor at Stony Brook University. “They’re extremely susceptible to overfishing.” (American paddlefish caviar is still legal and available, although conservationists have raised alarms about the sustainability of the practice.)

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Sturgeon are easy to catch when they up rivers from saltwater to spawn. They also take a long time to mature — up to 25 years for some species — so rebuilding a population on the verge of extinction is a long-term commitment.

Iran also farms sturgeon, and a small amount of caviar makes its way into the export market. But strict U.S. sanctions on Iranian imports implemented in 2010 eliminated a previous exemption for the product.

Graham C. Gaspard, president of Black River Caviar, said Iranian caviar has an unusual flavor that is prized by caviar aficionados

“Being that they have aquaculture facilities that are based right on the Caspian (Sea), these sturgeon live in brackish water. The flesh takes on that flavor, and of course, the caviar does as well,” said Gaspard, whose company imports caviar from sturgeon farmed in Uruguay’s Rio Negro. Producers can raise sturgeon in fresh water and add salt to it, but the result isn’t the same, he said.

“It’s going to be a long process. Despite what the trade agreement does… it’s not going to happen that fast.”

Gaspard said he would like to see Iranian caviar back on the market even though it would technically be a competitor.

“Actually having more variety, having Iranian caviar in the market, personally I welcome it,” he said. “By having Iranian caviar in the U.S. market it’s going to attract attention, it’s going to help us market caviar.”

But that day won’t come anytime soon, he conceded. “It’s going to be a long process,” he said. “Despite what the trade agreement does… it’s not going to happen that fast.”

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Iranian exporters as well as American importers would have to get the green light from regulators before they could get the product into customers’ hands, and it’s not clear how long something like that would take, Gaspard said.

For starters, Iran's export of farmed caviar would have to pass muster under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a legally binding agreement between 181 international governments. Domestically, agencies as diverse as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Food and Drug Administration all have a hand in getting the caviar in front of the eager gourmand.

Still, having sanctions lifted would be an important first move towards that end. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

As for National Caviar Day, celebrated each year on July 18, while there is abundant documentation of its existence on the Internet, its origins are murky. “We find no congressional records or presidential proclamation,” establishing such a day, notes the website.

Branchina said he looked into National Caviar Day years ago, and ran into the same dead end. "Further searching was fruitless. My ultimate conclusion is that ‘National Caviar Day’ is really nothing more than a well-intended, yet contrived, reason to ‘celebrate’ its existence," he wrote in a blog post in 2013.