Picture a dinosaur. An underwater dinosaur, 13 feet long, bony and bumpy. The white sturgeon hasn’t changed since the Triassic, some 175 million years ago, and it still swims at the bottom of the Columbia, ghostly white and feeling its way along the dark bottom of the river with whiskerlike sensors.
“You could feed the whole village with these large fish,” says Donella Miller, a sturgeon biologist for the Yakama Nation. But dams have limited their mobility and genetic diversity, warming and slowing the currents they used to travel. Numbers fell and fishing restrictions tightened to where they’re basically a catch-and-release fish. That meant an end not just to the firm, white, halibutlike meat—it meant an end to Columbia River caviar.
It’s not beluga caviar, the Caspian Sea delicacy that’s mostly banned in the U.S. But transmontanus eggs from Columbia River stock are nutty, often compared to the vaunted Caspian Sea Ossetra variety. Currently it’s only sold from aquaculture farms in Idaho and California, though criminals still poach pregnant fish from the Columbia in hopes of selling it on the black market and making thousands of dollars on a single fish’s eggs.
Caviar’s always been a shady business. Dale Sherrow of Seattle Caviar Company used to be approached by sailors off a docked cargo ship or men in suits fit for used car dealers, offering caviar of questionable origin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked Sherrow to be an honorary special agent, acting in stings and routing poachers toward arrest. The feds sold the contraband back to him to fund their enforcement operations. The Columbia poachers, Sherrow says, don’t have much of a market. It used to be “you’d get into a cab with a Russian cab driver, and he’d offer you caviar.” Now the caviar isn’t worth thousands if no one will actually buy it.
But a legitimate Columbia River caviar is on the horizon. Miller and the Yakama Nation have built a sturgeon hatchery near Toppenish, where they release 18,000 fish a year into the wild. They sell limited amounts as Celilo Select White Sturgeon and hope to sell white sturgeon caviar soon, though it takes up to a decade to grow a female big enough to harvest roe, and the hatchery’s only been open since 2009.
Early tests of the Yakama caviar look good, says Miller: jet-black eggs the size and color of BBs, firm like caviar is supposed to be. “It’s a real mild flavor,” she says. “Nutty with some buttery, more nutty than fishy.” Columbia River caviar is coming back. Just be patient.