WILLISTON, N.D. (Reuters) - North Dakota is known globally not just for prolific oil production, but also, it turns out, for caviar.
A distinctly American version of the salty delicacy prized for centuries by Russian czars gets its start each May in the cool waters where the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers converge, the same spot where explorers Lewis and Clark camped two centuries ago.
As paddlefish, one of North America’s largest freshwater fish, make their way north to spawn, their eggs, or roe, are processed at the water’s edge to make more than 2,000 pounds of caviar prized by clients from Tokyo to Toronto to New York.
“Everyone will tell you that Russian sturgeon caviar is the best, and since the quality of our caviar is so close, we feel like we’re second,” said June Sheaks, executive director of North Star Caviar, the nonprofit company behind the caviar operation.
Paddlefish, sometimes called a relic species because they lived before even dinosaurs, are so named for long snouts that make up about a third of their body length.
The state allows only 1,000 to be caught each year, as the population has dropped roughly in half since the 1970s to about 50,000 today due to overfishing and other factors.
Before North Star was formed about 25 years ago, roe from female paddlefish was discarded by North Dakota fishermen. Roe has to be collected before the fish die, so transporting fish hundreds of miles to a caviar processing site was not feasible.
“Our primary goal is to keep this type of sportsmanship alive,” Sheaks said.
It’s a symbiotic relationship: North Star cleans the fish for free, with the fisherman’s agreement that the roe gets left behind to make caviar.
“We have a good of time as anyone can, gutting hundreds of paddlefish,” said Bruce Hecklinski, an effusive man donning an industrial apron and waterproof boots at the North Star processing site as hundreds of nearby fishermen try their luck on a warm afternoon.
After the paddlefish are weighed and measured (a typical 70 pound female can be at least 20 percent roe) they are sent up a small conveyor into a structure where three sterilized rooms handle three stages in the caviar process: gutting; cleaning and salting; and canning.
Against the backdrop of the state’s growing oil industry, which produces about 1.2 million barrels of oil a day, North Star does test its caviar for the presence of hydrocarbons, but has not found any yet, Sheaks said. (The fish swim hundreds of miles each year far from the wells.)
Most of the caviar is sold to wholesale distributors who bid in an auction-style process.
“The purpose is, of course, to get the best price,” said Sheaks. “As soon as May 1 hit, my phone was ringing off the hook asking how the season is going so far.”
Only about 50 pounds is sold retail, typically in local markets, where a 4 ounce jar costs $100. (Russian caviar can cost twice as much retail.)
North Star makes a profit of about $150,000 each year. The funds support the nearby historic sites of Fort Union Trading Post and Fort Buford, where American Indian Chief Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881. Money also goes to community events in Williston, considered capital of the state’s oil boom.
For now, North Star sees North American fish farming as its biggest competition, not necessarily Russian caviar, which for a time was banned for U.S. import due to overfishing concerns.
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Terry Wade and Andrew Hay