Do you love caviar? Not the big, red salmon variety, but the small, black, tasty sturgeon type? If so, then get ready to go into mourning. Unless, maybe, you're Whole Foods
On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a ban on all beluga caviar imported from Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Those countries failed to submit to the service any plans to preserve the fish, which the U.S. placed on its endangered-species list last year. The ban applies to beluga sturgeon -- its meat and eggs -- from the Caspian Sea.
So far, the ban is not absolute. Beluga sturgeon is native to the Caspian, which the above countries border, but also to the Black Sea. The service has apparently requested that countries bordering the Black Sea also submit plans on how they intend to protect sturgeon, meaning that a ban on imports from countries such as Ukraine and Turkey could also be in the offing. (One wonders precisely how, in the meantime, U.S. Customs will enforce the ban on Russian-originated caviar, since Russia borders both the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.)
Interest groups on different sides of the issue have, as you might expect, differing views on the service's ban. Caviar Emptor, a group dedicated to protecting the fish species, applauded the ban. Petrossian, a private company that Capital IQ lists as among nine private companies involved in the caviar import/export trade, argued that the ban will only drive the caviar market underground and further exacerbate the criminalization of the beluga caviar trade. (Some reports suggest that the majority of beluga caviar sold in Russia is harvested not by licensed companies, but by poachers with ties to organized crime.)
Researching which companies might be hurt by the service's ban, I learned from Capital IQ that essentially every company in this business is privately owned. The one publicly traded company might as well not be: United Specialties, which trades on the Pink Sheets for $0.0005 and has no trading volume at all.
One company that might benefit from the ban, on the other hand, is Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Whole Foods. The gourmet grocer recently stopped selling Caspian beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviars and replaced them with a new variety of sturgeon caviar being privately farmed in California. With its supply line already in place, Whole Foods could well benefit from a surge in well-heeled customers seeking a reliable caviar fix, as the supplies from their usual "dealers" begin to dry up.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares in any company mentioned in this story.