Somewhere in the archives here at The Star, perhaps in the myriad “Looking Them Over” columns written by the late Jeannette Edwards Rattray, are stories about how the Atlantic sturgeon was caught here and made into caviar.
In “Men’s Lives,” Peter Matthiessen’s elegy for the traditional baymen of the South Fork (which accompanies a stunning book of photographs), he reports that Capt. Frank Lester of the Amagansett Lesters, who was born in 1890, set nets for sturgeon.
So I called Milton Miller, who at the age of 96 is one of the last of the old-time fishermen, to ask whether Captain Frank made caviar. Yes, he said. As a boy Mr. Miller watched Captain Frank bring in sturgeon. He described the sieves used to separate the roe. It was, for a time, he said, a money fish for Captain Frank, more so than cod. “I wouldn’t have eaten it,” he said of the caviar.
The Atlantic sturgeon, one of more than 20 sturgeon species, is endangered. Adults of the species are known to be as long as 12 to 15 feet and to weigh up to 800 pounds. It is among the oldest of aquatic animals, and its appearance is said to offer a glimpse of what fish may have looked like in the time of the dinosaurs.
Mr. Miller told me a funny story about a friend who, upon seeing one at Lion’s Head Rock in Gardiner’s Bay, thought it was an alligator.
My interest in what had become of the sturgeon here was aroused recently when I read in The New York Times that Abu Dhabi, one of the seven of the United Arab Emirates, “is talking caviar on a scale that would make czars blush.” It is developing a $120 million indoor sturgeon farm, the world’s largest, and by 2015 expects to have 35 tons of roe, more than a quarter of the worldwide quantity, to turn into black gold.
The best caviar used to come from the beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, but overfishing, destruction of spawning habitats, and pollution have caused its decline, if not its collapse, there. Companies in Russia, second only in caviar sales to Iran in the past, have branched out to partner with technologically sophisticated enterprises in such countries as Germany, Uruguay, and Argentina. But in the Emirates, they do things in a bigger way.
According to The Times, the demand for caviar far exceeds worldwide production. Sturgeon in Abu Dhabi “are coddled in the piscine versions of five-star luxury,” The Times said. And Persian Gulf residents are “increasingly seeking the roe . . . as a symbol of their wealth.” Everything is in place in Abu Dhabi to satisfy, as The Times put it, “the growing appetites of the newly wealthy in Far East markets, especially in China.”
I have never been to Abu Dhabi, but we spent 24 hours last month in its neighboring state, Dubai, on our way to Ethiopia, where many people are hungry. From what I could see, Dubai has elevated conspicuous consumption to an astronomical level. And I read that in Abu Dhabi ATM machines dispense gold bars.