Iranian caviar eyeing comeback in the US

Iranian caviar eyeing comeback in the US
ID : N-330 Date : 2017/09/18 - 16:56

(Persia digest)-  On Monday 18 September 2017, the Los Angeles Times wrote: Nasser Meshkin Azarian took a careful nibble, letting the salty, grainy texture roll across his tongue. He smiled and washed it down with a sip of cool water.

“I give it an 82 or 83” out of 100, Azarian said. At the retail price of $80 an ounce in Iran, it was an expensive bite. But beluga caviar is for discerning palates.

Once among Iran’s most famous exports, the industry nearly collapsed because of trade restrictions and an international clampdown on the capture of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. The long, prehistoric fish, whose glittery, bead-like eggs make the choicest caviar, had been driven nearly to extinction by overfishing.

Now, dozens of Iranian producers are raising sturgeon legally on fish farms, just as the 2015 nuclear agreement Iran signed with six world powers has slowly reopened foreign markets to Iranian products.

After the United States lifted an embargo on Iranian goods in January 2016, the first shipment of Iranian caviar in nearly a decade reached the U.S. last year: a modest 18 pounds of the prized beluga variety, some of which ended up for sale at stores frequented by Iranian expatriates in Los Angeles and other cities.

The shipment was worth about $16,000 before retail markup, or about as much as Iran’s $41 billion oil and gas industry generates in 12 seconds. Caviar alone, no matter how costly, is not going to resuscitate Iran’s economy.

But the shipment was one signal of a new page in Iran’s relations with the West, and a sign that the Islamic Republic was ready to do business with the world again. In two or three years, industry officials said, Iran could export as much as 200 pounds annually to the United States as production increases and Iran finds new customers for the luxury food.

“The United States is an uncharted but potentially big market for us,” said Ali Akbar Khodaei, secretary-general of Iran’s Fisheries Production and Trading Union, an industry group.

There is potential in Iran’s fisheries industry, whose exports rose 80% in the most recent quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, said Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech University.

The lifting of sanctions is happening at a potentially lucrative time for Iran’s caviar industry, which is finally rebounding after decades of struggles.

The mostly state-controlled industry nearly collapsed during the 1990s and 2000s as the breakup of the Soviet Union — with which Iran shared the Caspian Sea — triggered a torrent of unregulated fishing in one of the world’s main habitats for several sturgeon species including the beluga, which produces the most expensive caviar.

In 2010, sturgeon farming got a boost after Iran signed a ban on sturgeon fishing with Russia and the three other former Soviet republics that are part of the Caspian Sea basin. Iran supplied several fish farms with sturgeon from government stocks, allowing the beluga to grow in concrete pools, some with salt water piped in from the Caspian.

The beluga, with a lifespan of 100 years, typically takes about a decade to begin producing eggs. Within two or three years, industry officials say, Iranian farmed caviar production will rise exponentially.

But challenges remain. U.S. financial sanctions against Iran still bar Iranian companies from doing business in dollars, meaning sales to the United States must be done through informal money transfer systems. That is manageable for relatively small shipments such as caviar, but potentially problematic if volumes rise substantially.

And many producers worry that the Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran will result in the United States withdrawing from the nuclear deal and leveling fresh sanctions that could again isolate Iranian companies from world markets.

In recent years, China has accounted for much of the world’s caviar production, although its product is widely seen as inferior to Iranian and Russian eggs. Farms in California also have begun to produce black caviar.

But Iranian producers are confident that their caviar will regain customers in the United States — and not just among Iranian expatriates nostalgic for a taste of home.

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