Caviar Crisis Looms as Sturgeon Stocks Dwindle

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 6, 2000 (ENS) - Caviar, long a symbol of luxury, is emerging instead as a sign of environmental mismanagement as Caspian Sea sturgeon populations - source of much of the world's caviar - plummet. As sales of caviar increase this holiday season, environmental groups are warning that demand for the prized treat could drive the long lived fish to extinction.

caviar

Caviar, traditionally the eggs of sturgeon, sells today for up to $140 U.S. an ounce (Photo courtesy Savory Selections, Inc.)
In response to the triple threat to sturgeon posed by overfishing, habitat loss and pollution, three environmental groups today announced a campaign to protect and help restore the world's remaining sturgeon populations. The initial focus of the groups' recommendations is on beluga, Russian and stellate sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, which produce the vast majority of the world's caviar.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is warning that illegal fishing, caviar production and trade could render some species of sturgeon commercially extinct within a couple of years.

"Caviar Emptor," the new campaign unveiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and SeaWeb, today released "Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery." The report details the threats facing Caspian Sea sturgeon, particularly beluga, and the steps needed to achieve recovery.

The campaign will file a formal petition this week asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, which would halt importation of beluga caviar into the United States.

In addition, the campaign will encourage the U.S. government to pursue an international ban on trade of beluga caviar at a meeting of an expert committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which convenes this week to review global trade in various sturgeon species.

spoons

Different sturgeon species produce different colors and sizes of roe (Photo courtesy Caviar Direct)
Scientists from the CITES Animals Committee will review annual export quotas of caviar producing countries and discuss measures to manage the whole industry. These quotas have not been based on good science, with population estimates at best a guess, warns WWF.

"This is the last chance for countries to tackle the sturgeon crisis. Unless clear answers are provided by exporting countries on their sturgeon management efforts, an international ban on caviar could be introduced within six months for the most endangered species," said Alexander Shestakov, programme officer at WWF-Russia.

Sturgeon have declined precipitously due to overfishing, illegal trade, biological vulnerability, lack of effective fisheries management and habitat degradation. The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal poaching around the world. Because sturgeon are a slow growing species, they are vulnerable to rapid overfishing and their populations can take decades to recover.

Sturgeon catches in the Caspian basin account for 60 percent of the world's caviar supply. Catches in the basin have dropped from 20,000 tonnes a year in the late 1970s to 1,000 tonnes in the late 1990s.

Although fishing efforts have increased in recent years, the official catch has plummeted by nearly 95 per cent in the last 20 years.

So far this year, Russian anti-poaching officials and border guards have found more than 70 tonnes of sturgeon entangled in illegal nets. This is estimated to be only a small fraction of the illegal catch.

sturgeon

Russian sturgeon caught by a poacher's hooks (Photo Caroline Raymakers, courtesy TRAFFIC-World Wildlife Fund)
"Illegal fishing and trade, most of which is controlled by the Russian Mafia, is threatening the very existence of the sturgeon," said WWF's Shestakov.

Sturgeon have been around for about 250 million years. Some sturgeon species can live for up to 150 years and reach up to six metres long, weighing in at more than 1.5 tonnes. This makes the sturgeon one of the largest fresh water fish in the world.

"Demand for caviar has driven the market value for this fish through the roof while at the same time cutting their life expectancy in half. Beluga sturgeon are nearing the point of no return," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of Marine Programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "These ancient fish have survived the disappearance of dinosaurs from the planet, but will they survive us?"

Caviar Emptor proposes a number of actions that the U.S. government, international governing bodies, and consumers can take to prevent further decline, including promoting alternatives such as environmentally sound farm raised caviar.

The United States accounts for about one third of the world's caviar imports. It is also the second largest importer of beluga and Russian caviar in the world, importing about 28,000 pounds of beluga caviar in 1999.

The Caviar Emptor campaign recommends that the U.S. government take a series of actions, including:

To help restore beluga populations, world governments must stop the international trade in beluga caviar and increase funding for key programs and initiatives needed to protect and restore all Caspian Sea sturgeon, environmental groups agree.

"We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the NRDC, referring to beluga sturgeon. "This is a true conservation emergency that will require concerted action on the part of consumers, the U.S. government and the international community to prevent the extinction of this extraordinary fish."

pallid sturgeon

All sturgeon species, including the pallid sturgeon of North America, are now on the CITES list (Photo by Mark Dryer, courtesy USFWS)
"In theory, the legal trade in caviar should act as an incentive to the governments around the Caspian Sea, but this trade is in severe risk of ending unless urgent action is taken to clamp down on the illegal trade," said Stuart Chapman, head of WWF-United Kingdom's species programme. "WWF would like to see caviar trading companies fund conservation efforts and governments committed to exposing corruption, targeting the illegal trade and implementing better controls to manage it."

Consumers can help by choosing more sustainable alternatives. North Star Caviar, Yellowstone Caviar and caviar farmed in the United States are among the better available alternatives, the environmental groups said.

"While caviar is perceived to be a luxury item and connotes a certain status, it's important for consumers to make wiser seafood choices and recognize that it is certainly in 'bad taste' to eat anything that is in such severe environmental decline," said Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb.

Copies of Caviar Emptor's report "Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery" are available online at http://www.caviaremptor.org.