EMAILED ON March 19, 2019 BY Conor Grant

Global markets are choked with Chinese caviar, and it’s sink or swim for US producers 

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.