The global market for fancy fish balls is just swimming with Chinese caviar: China’s exports quintupled between 2012 and 2017, and today more than 60% of the salty little fish eggs that top the world’s tiny, trust-funded toasts come from China.
Still, skyrocketing supplies of slimy sturgeon-spheres signify a slippery situation for some seasoned, salt-of-the-sea sellers. According to The Wall Street Journal, sales at many US caviar companies have slipped 50%, causing considerable caviar concern.
The upstream journey of Chinese fish eggs
Since overfishing almost unnaturally-selected sturgeon to extinction in the ’90s, most caviar has been cultivated in fish farms to save the species.
Fish farming has made a particularly large splash in China: A single Chinese company called Kaluga Queen produces ⅓ of the world’s caviar. The company is increasing output by 20-30% annually and plans to continue growing at that pace for at least 5 more years.
Today, China’s rarefied roe is among the cheapest and the highest quality in the world, giving the Chinese caviar cartel considerable control.
Caviar competition is causing a roe
China’s newfound dominance has been a source of fish-flavored frustration for American caviar-mongers.
From 2014 to 2018, the amount of caviar imported to the US increased from $7.6m to $17.8m. About half of the 2018 imports came from China, forcing many American producers to drop their caviar prices by 25% to compete with low Chinese prices.
Even a 10% tariff levied on Chinese imports in September wasn’t enough to keep US caviar competitive.
The forecast for fish eggs
Adult sturgeons take 5 years to mature and start producing retail-worthy roe, making fishball-forecasting a slippery business.
But for American caviar companies, there is a real sense of sturgeon-cy: The price of imported caviar dropped 13% in the US last year (and 50% since 2012), and if American companies don’t differentiate themselves from China’s caviar czar, they could sink.
The fanciest caviar-makers have begun adding “Californian grown” labels to continue selling their products at premium prices — hoping, you might say, to brand their Californian fish eggs as the caviar of caviar.