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Guardian of the Fish With the Golden Eggs
April 17, 2009 - The New York Times
By Lauren Porcaro Dorment

In a modern glass laboratory on the roof of the American Museum of Natural History, in the shadow of the red-tiled turrets and green copper domes, a 36-year-old conservation geneticist named Phaedra Doukakis is fighting to save an endangered fish.

Dr. Doukakis is on a mission to protect the sturgeon, a fish particularly vulnerable because its eggs are used to make caviar.

Her informal manner echoes the way she talks about these fish. She refers to them affectionately as “these guys” and laments the fact that they “got whacked” by overfishing. But the informality cloaks a depth of knowledge.

Dr. Doukakis, who alternates between an apartment in Hamilton Heights and a house in Ulster County, has been associated with the museum since 1996. It may be fitting that she is doing this work in the heart of the city that is perhaps the nation’s leading consumer of caviar, buying several tons a year.

The fish that is the focus of her professional endeavors has a special status in the conservation world. Sturgeon, about 25 species of fish from one family, first appeared in the fossil record 200 million years ago and are generally huge: In some species, a sturgeon can live past 100 and grow to 2,000 pounds. To spawn, they swim upstream from seas into rivers; their favorite is the 1,500-mile Ural River, which runs from the Ural Mountains in Russia through Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea.

The lure of illegal caviar drives the black market: At $5,000 to $10,000 per kilo of beluga caviar, one beluga sturgeon could be worth $50,000.

In 2007, several Kazakh scientists came to New York and met with Dr. Doukakis and other American biologists in an effort to try to save their sturgeon from the sorry fate the fish met in New York. Two species found in the Hudson River, the Atlantic sturgeon and the short-nosed sturgeon, were once plentiful, perhaps because their meat was unpopular.

By the 1850s, fishermen were hawking sturgeon meat under the name Albany beef. Enterprising merchants shipped American caviar off to an expanding European market, while New York bartenders offered free caviar sandwiches, hoping that the salty taste would prompt people to drink more alcohol. By 1900, the populations of both species crashed. Still, the demand continued.

Flash forward a century. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Doukakis, working with Rob DeSalle, a curator at the museum, and Vadim Birstein, a Russian biologist, developed a method of identifying caviar by its DNA sequence. They also designed a market study that involved buying tins of caviar locally and analyzing the DNA to see if the species inside matched the label.

They found that a quarter of the caviar sold in New York was mislabeled, with the eggs of endangered species for sale in Manhattan, often unbeknown to both buyer and seller. The study, published in 1998, contributed to the imposition of trade restrictions by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The sale of caviar from the wild beluga sturgeon, which is among the endangered species, is banned in the United States. But because beluga caviar can still be found in stores and online, a decade later, Dr. Doukakis and her colleagues are on the hunt again.

AT the museum’s lab, officially known as the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, Dr. Doukakis is working with Anna Rothschild, a research technician, to replicate the original study, with funding from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook, Dr. Doukakis's employer. The goal is to determine whether international conservation efforts have reduced the amount of endangered species’ caviar sold in New York and online.

For the past year, they have been visiting high-end food shops, posing as party planners.

“If anybody asked, we had our story down,” Ms. Rothschild said.

Because Dr. Doukakis is widely known in the caviar world, she uses colleagues’ credit cards to buy caviar online. In one of the lab’s ultracold freezers sat a box bearing the business address of Ms. Rothschild’s father, who works in the music industry.

After washing the eggs from the caviar samples, Ms. Rothschild breaks them down to DNA strands, which are then read by a laser that identifies the DNA sequence. Using a computer program, she compares the sequence of a new sample with samples in a database.

Neither woman much likes caviar, but because fraudulent caviar is often poorly processed or spoiled, tasting is part of the job, and not always a pleasant part.

“You’ve had the paddlefish caviar, right?” Dr. Doukakis asked her technician one day recently as the two women inspected vials of frozen caviar in the lab. “It just tastes like mud.”

Their report will appear toward the end of the year. While Dr. Doukakis predicts that it will show that New Yorkers are buying less illegal caviar than in the past, over all, the picture for sturgeon grows bleaker, largely because the international black market persists. “These fish continue to be pummeled,” Dr. Doukakis said.

In the course of her research, she has visited four of the fishing nations on the Caspian Sea — Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan — and spent three fishing seasons on the Ural River.

But her work in the city presses on. The other day, Dr. Doukakis sat in the lab at a blond-wood table examining photographs of fishing expeditions on the river. Across Central Park, sunset bronzed the buildings of the East Side.

The work can be difficult, she acknowledged. “But,” she added, “I’m pretty convinced I’ll end up working on sturgeon for the rest of my life.”

Read the article on The New York Times website

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