Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jersey Caviar

Sturgeon docks at Caviar/Bayside. Rutgers Collection, ca. 1930.

You probably associate caviar, salted sturgeon eggs, as a delicacy from Russia. It was the "treat of the tsars." But New Jerseyans may be surprised that our state was once famous for its own caviar.

If we go back to the late 1800s, the Delaware Bay and Delaware River were one of the most productive sturgeon fisheries, helping make the United States the world's top caviar exporter.

At the mouth of the Stow Creek in Cumberland County, was a place known as known as Caviar (or Caviar Point) that had a processing plant and railroad spur for sending the caviar north through the Pine Barrens to New York City. During the fishing season, approximately 400 fishermen lived in the nearby cabins and houseboats, with access only to a store, post office, and train station.

Atlantic sturgeon, a bony, prehistoric-looking fish, were placed on the federal endangered species list and NJDEP monitors migration patterns in our waters. But back in 1895, they were shipping 15 train cars of caviar and smoked sturgeon every day out of NJ.

Despite Atlantic sturgeon being plentiful, between the females that were slaughtered to extract the eggs, increasing demand on a slow-maturing species and overfishing, the fishery and the caviar business crashed in the early 1900s. A sturgeon can live until it is over 60 years old and they breed anywhere from once a year to once every 5 years.

The town of Caviar became known as Bayside and caviar disappeared from New Jersey's industries.

But Atlantic sturgeon were not eliminated from the Delaware. Although the estimated 300 to 500 adult females that spawn there is a very "endangered" population when compared to the estimated 180,000 breeding sturgeon believed to be in the bay prior to 1890.

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