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UNCROWNED KING OF CAVIAR
Robert H. Boyle
November 03, 1969
The waters of the Hudson River are not as murky to Ace Lent as they are to most people. He can see a lot of caviar swimming around down there in the bellies of sturgeon
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November 03, 1969

Uncrowned King Of Caviar

The waters of the Hudson River are not as murky to Ace Lent as they are to most people. He can see a lot of caviar swimming around down there in the bellies of sturgeon

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Even less is known about the life history of the round-nosed sturgeon. The Interior Department has classified this species as endangered, the same status given to the whooping crane. An endangered species is "one whose prospects of survival and reproduction are in immediate jeopardy. Its peril may result from one or many causes—loss of habitat or change in habitat, overexploitation, predation, competition, disease. An endangered species must have help, or extinction will probably follow." Originally the round-nosed sturgeon ranged in rivers from Florida to New Brunswick. It was found nowhere else in the world. According to the Interior Department, all recent catches, except for one Florida specimen, have been from the Hudson River. "The species is gone in most of the rivers of its former range," states an Interior report. Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States ; "[it] is probably not yet extinct."

Ace laughed when he heard this. He is not one to mock an endangered species, but the round-nosed sturgeon is far from an unusual fish in the Hudson. The state allows round-nosed to be taken from July 1 to April 30, supposedly the beginning of the spawning season. Although the round-nosed has been caught at sea, the fish apparently spends all its life in the river and ordinarily does not go into the Atlantic. The smallest of all the species of sturgeon in the world, round-nosed males mature when only 19 or 20 inches long and females at about 24 inches.

According to Bigelow and Schroeder's authoritative Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, the heaviest round-nosed on record weighed seven pounds four ounces. In a more recent study Vadim D. Vladykov and John R. Greeley give the maximum weight as "about nine pounds." However, Ace and Charlie White have taken these fish weighing up to 25 or 30 pounds. Unfortunately, people at Verplanck Point put such a high gourmet value on the large round-nosed that I have had difficulty procuring a record fish to give to the American Museum of Natural History. Once Ace promised me a 20-pounder, but when I went over to get it he said: "So-and-so ate it. He came in, saw the fish and bought it. How could I have turned him down?" The same thing happened with a 15-pounder. The Pointers go on eating supposedly endangered fish of world-record size. When Ace finally understood the importance of a record round-nosed, he promised he would save the next one. This produced an 11-pound four-ounce specimen for the museum. It was a female and contained 44 ounces of eggs. I gave the fish to neighbor Ron Dagon, who has a large freezer, for safekeeping. Alas, Dagon lost the key to the freezer, and the museum has yet to get its record fish.

During the colder months, female round-nosed sturgeon contain eggs that can be made into caviar. Whenever Spitz isn't around, Ace has been kind enough to give them to me. At first I was faced with the problem of preparing caviar properly, and a Croton acquaintance, Dr. Dan Salzberg, joined in the quest for informative how-to-do-it literature. Such literature proved to be lacking, aside from 19th-century reports on taking 100 pounds of caviar and letting it sit in its own brine of fine-grained L�neburg salt from Germany. Salzberg found a book in the New York Public Library with the title Caviar, but it turned out to be a dreary novel about some high-living Middle Europeans in the 1920s, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with caviar. As is his bent, Salzberg read it and insisted upon telling me the plot one evening. Finally we chanced upon the printed advice of General Malcolm Beyer, the chairman of Iron Gate Products Company in Manhattan, the gourmet foods affiliate of "21". Beyer, a retired Marine brigadier general, is the largest single American purchaser of caviar from the Soviet Union, and his instructions for making caviar are to be found in that estimable work, McClane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide.

Following the general's instructions, Salzberg and I remove the egg sacs from the fish and place them on very fine mesh from a minnow seine stretched across a bowl and held in place by a rubber band. We gently rub the sacs back and forth across the mesh. The tissues adhere to the mesh, while the eggs separate and fall into the bowl. The eggs are carefully stirred and rinsed in cold tap water four or five times. After the final rinsing and draining, we have a bowlful of glistening, pearly black eggs. We place the eggs in a colander and allow them to drain for no longer than 10 minutes. We slide the eggs back into the bowl, which has been wiped dry. We add 3% salt by volume to the eggs, mixing in the salt gently with a cake spatula. We then ladle the eggs into small sterilized glass jars until the jars are filled to the brim. The jars are capped and placed in the refrigerator. A week later the caviar is ready, and it can be kept for up to six months. On no account should caviar be placed in a freezer; freezing will cause the eggs to burst. The caviar from the round-nosed sturgeon is of excellent quality. I gave a jarful to General Beyer, and, to quote Hamlet, " 'twas caviare to the general." He pronounced it equal to the best sevruga caviar from the Soviet Union, and he offered to buy any round-nosed caviar available at the wholesale price of $10 a pound.

Pointers themselves are very fond of cooking skinned sea sturgeon, which has a strong taste uniquely its own. The round-nosed, a naturally oilier fish, is even stronger. Properly prepared, either kind of sturgeon can be excellent. In appearance and flavor both are more like turkey than fish. Because of the strong flavor, many Pointers parboil or marinate their fish, cut it into steaks and saut� it.

Frankly, I do not care for sturgeon, either round-nosed or pelican, as a dinner dish. However, I do like smoked sturgeon. I buy the fish from Ace and take them to Ralph Mann, a carpenter and jazz musician in Croton, who smokes them over applewood gathered from abandoned orchards.

Many persons, ichthyologists included, have been flabbergasted by the abundance of sturgeon in the Hudson. A couple of years ago Biologist John Clark asked me to collect some live striped bass from the Hudson for the U.S. Marine Laboratory at Sandy Hook. I did this with Seth Rosenbaum, a New York City systems engineer. Following Clark's arrangements, Seth took off for the New York Aquarium at Coney Island with three striped bass swimming around in a container on the front seat of his aging convertible. An air hose plugged into the cigarette lighter assured the fish of a supply of oxygen. As an added treat for Clark, we had added a few small sea sturgeon to the container. The New York Aquarium was to hold the stripers for Clark in a temporary tank until he could get over from Sandy Hook to pick them up.

When Seth roared up to the aquarium he asked Charlie Young, the keeper, the whereabouts of the holding tank. In an offhand fashion Young pointed to the tank, and Seth dumped in the fish. Young did a double take when he saw the sturgeon. "Where did you get those?" he asked. "Up the Hudson," Seth replied airily. A day later I had a call from Young, and not long afterward he and Eddie Dols were up to see Ace at the Point. Every once in a while, Young and Dols explained, the aquarium got the chance to pick up a six- or seven-foot-long sea sturgeon from the pound nets off Long Island and the Jersey coast. Although such fish were of interest to the aquarium, they took up a lot of space in an exhibit tank. On the other hand, Young and Dols went on, small sea sturgeon were rarities. In fact, aquariums all over the world wanted them. The small sturgeon did not take up much space, and they were genuine showstoppers for the viewing public. Surplus juvenile sturgeon were also excellent for trading with other aquariums. In fact, an aquarium that had an assured supply, a lock on the market, if you will, was in the position of a major league baseball club that had an unlimited number of Willie Mayses down on the farm teams. Ace was happy to help and he got to work. The New York Aquarium has a scientific license allowing it to collect fish of less than legal size, and under this permit Ace supplied Young and Dols with a dozen sea sturgeon, some as short as nine inches. Several of them are on exhibit at Coney Island, while the rest have been air-expressed to various other aquariums around the country.

At one time I kept a 14-inch pelican in my living room aquarium. For the most part the fish swam counterclockwise around the tank, sporadically sticking its snout out of the water. Afraid that the sturgeon would electrocute itself on the light wires above, I lowered the water level several inches. Unfortunately, I could not get the fish to feed, and after two months it died. In public aquariums sea sturgeon thrive in a tank of 30,000 gallons or more on a diet of cut shrimp and baitfish. So far, the brass of the New York Aquarium have been uninterested in keeping round-nosed sturgeon from the Hudson. None of this species has ever been kept in captivity anywhere, so far as I know, and their confinement would mark a first. Surely their presence in a tank of sufficient size would contribute considerable knowledge to their feeding habits and behavior. It might even be possible to induce the round-nosed to spawn in captivity, and, considering the rarity of this species elsewhere along the coast, such an event might do much toward relieving its endangered status.

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