Think caviar and you probably think upscale parties, high-class restaurants and maybe the waters of the Caspian Sea, where much of the valuable delicacy is harvested.
But 13 years ago, Ron Mohn thought of the Flathead River. Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s imposition of a September ban on the import of beluga caviar harvested in the Caspian Sea region, the rest of the United States may start thinking like Mohn.
Mohn started Mountain Lake Fisheries in 1991 in Columbia Falls. At first, the company intended only to catch, process and sell filets from Lake Superior whitefish caught in the Flathead River. By 1992 they were wondering what to do with fish eggs left over after processing. Mohn says he called caviar purveyors and found one willing to pay $1.50 per pound. A few years later, he got a call from another company interested in buying his caviar, and that got him thinking about its true value. He sent samples to several chefs who, Mohn says, gave his caviar “glowing reports.” Soon afterward it was selling for $25 per four-ounce jar.
Mohn’s fortune was born of the folly of turn-of-the-century biologists and the agency then known as Montana Fish and Game. According to Mohn, the Lake Superior whitefish were introduced to the lake in 1903 by biologists attempting to start a commercial fishery that could feed local logging crews. The fish failed at their original mission, but in 1989 Montana Fish and Game released mysis shrimp upstream from Flathead Lake in an attempt to bolster kokanee salmon populations. The shrimp made their way to the lake and eventually into the bellies of the Lake Superior whitefish, which proliferated.
Now, with the beluga sturgeon nearing extinction, and its caviar banned in the United States, Mohn is anticipating his best sales ever. He sold out of last year’s stock back in May. Normally, he says, that wouldn’t have happened until fall. Right now, he is harvesting this year’s crop and awaiting his busy season, which arrives just before Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Mohn’s caviar sales have now surpassed those of the whitefish filets that led him to start his business in the first place.
“I had this outstanding product, and I didn’t even know it,” Mohn says.