We've heard the complaints that Minnesota's Iron Range is suffering because of cheap steel China dumps on the U.S. market. But here's what we hadn't heard until now: the same dynamic is hurting North Dakota's caviar industry.
Yes, "North Dakota's caviar industry," is not a familiar phrase to most of us. It's actually just one company, a non-profit in Williston that's made enough money off its caviar sales to donate more than $2 million to community groups over 20-plus years, the Williston Herald says.
But North Star Caviar said this week that its annual harvest of paddlefish eggs from the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers won't be happening next month. North Star says there's been a drastic sales drop since farm-raised caviar from China has flooded the U.S. market recently.
Selling caviar since 1993
During the month of May fishermen line the banks where the Yellowstone River meets the Missouri. They're angling for paddlefish, a prehistoric species that swims upstream to spawn in the late spring.
Since eggs for caviar need to be harvested while a fish is still alive, North Star Caviar set up shop right on the riverbank in 1993, offering those fishermen a pretty good deal: we'll clean your paddlefish for free as long as you let us keep the eggs (which are called roe in the caviar business).
When Reuters profiled North Star Caviar a couple years ago, they said a typical female paddlefish brought to the company's plant weighs 70 pounds and 20 of those pounds are roe.
North Star was making about 2,000 pounds of caviar a year, Reuters said, selling most of it to wholesalers through auctions. About 50 pounds was reserved for the retail market, where four ounces sold for $100 – about half the price of top-of-the-line Russian caviar from sturgeon eggs.
But conditions changed quickly when caviar from Chinese fish farms hit the market. North Star Caviar says there's been a "drastic decrease in sales." According to the Williston Herald, the company had 1,200 pounds of unsold caviar last summer.
North Star Caviar is a joint venture of the Williston Chamber of Commerce and Friends of Fort Union/Fort Buford. The confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers is an area rich with history and North Star has made annual grants for the interpretive programs at both Fort Union and Fort Buford. They've also paid for paddlefish research through the North Dakota Department of Fish and Game.
North Star says it will continue to watch the caviar market and hopes a change in conditions will allow its fish cleaning operation to resume in 2018.