Most caviar, especially the high-end stuff, comes from sturgeons, long-lived fish that die when their eggs are forcibly removed. It can fairly be said that eating caviar is unsustainable at best, since sturgeons are the most critically endangered group of animals, with 85 percent of sturgeon species at risk of extinction. When German researcher Angela Köhler visited an Iranian caviar facility a few years back, she came face-to-face with a 30-year-old, 10-foot-long sturgeon that was being "harvested," as reported by Civil Eats:
“They brought in a huge female wild catch. They anesthetized it by a blow on the head, cut it open, and there were 7-8 kilos of caviar inside. They said, ‘this caviar is too mature to sell,’ so they discarded the whole fish, the caviar, everything,” Köhler recalls.
That came as a shock, and helped inspire Köhler to find a way to harvest caviar without killing sturgeon. She spent 9-years developing a system in which sturgeon's eggs can be "massaged" out of them to produce "no-kill caviar," or "cruelty-free caviar," as NPR reported:
The idea is to turn the caviar farming industry into something more akin to the commercial production of poultry, eggs or milk. The new method, being practiced at a small farm in Loxstedt, Germany, called Vivace GmbH, involves first viewing a sturgeon's eggs by ultrasound. If they are deemed ready, a signaling protein is administered to the sturgeon several days before the egg harvest. This, Köhler says, "induces labor" and releases the eggs from a membranous sack in the belly cavity. At that point, the eggs can be pumped from the belly with gentle massaging. Köhler says the process can be repeated every 15 months or so throughout a sturgeon's lifetime, which may last decades.
Some are skeptical that no-kill caviar will take off. Geno Evans, a caviar producer in Florida, said the method produces "mushy" eggs, although Köhler's method gets around that with a chemical treatment. This treatment improves the texture, said Deborah Keane, owner of the California Caviar Company, in Sausalito, Calif., which is currently the only American importer of Vivace no-kill caviar.