Questions and Answers

1/21/04

1. What is caviar?

Caviar is the eggs (or roe) taken from female sturgeon, a "fossil" fish found in coastal waters, rivers and lakes of the Northern Hemisphere.

2. Where does caviar come from?

Most of the world's caviar comes from sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, an inland sea located between Russia and Iran. Three species of sturgeon produce most of the world's caviar: beluga sturgeon produces beluga caviar; Russian sturgeon produces osetra caviar and stellate sturgeon produces sevruga caviar.

3. What is the goal of the Caviar Emptor program?

The goal of the program is to promote recovery of wild sturgeon, fish that supply the world with black caviar, and increase consumer awareness of the problems facing sturgeon and other fish.

4. Why focus on such an elite product?

Caspian Sea sturgeon are emblematic of the major problems facing fish worldwide - overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution. In this instance, overfishing is fueled largely by the market for Caspian caviar, a luxury product for which there are a number of viable alternatives. Consumers should be aware that many other fish species are severely depleted, and that they can make a difference by choosing eco-friendly varieties. For more information, see www.seafoodchoices.org

5. Is the United States an important consumer of caviar? Where does it come from?

From 1989 to 1997, the U.S. imported an average of 59 metric tons of caviar per year at an annual average value of $6.6 million, and ranked third in overall caviar imports. Caviar from the three Caspian Sea sturgeon species dominates the U.S. caviar market. Most caviar imported into the United States originates in Russia. The United States is the largest importer of beluga caviar. Imports of beluga caviar totaled about 28,000 pounds in 1999. In 2002, the United States imported 60 percent of the world's beluga caviar.

6. What are the problems with sturgeon?

Overharvest & Illegal Trade - Sturgeon are the principal source of one of the world's most expensive and sought-after luxury goods -- caviar. The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal fishing or poaching around the world. A number of sturgeon-producing countries, particularly the nations of the former Soviet Union, have experienced severe political and economic upheaval in recent years, and black markets have flourished in the absence of effective enforcement.

Biological vulnerability - Sturgeon can take from six to 25 years to reach sexual maturity and females of many species reproduce only once every three to four years. This means that sturgeon have fewer offspring over a lifetime than fish that reproduce at an earlier age and more frequently. So, it's easy to overfish a sturgeon population and difficult for the population to recover to a healthy level, particularly while overfishing continues.

Lack of Effective Management - Many populations of sturgeon and paddlefish migrate through the waters of different states and countries, often resulting in a patchwork of different catch levels, season and size limits, and other management measures. Many of the world's most imperiled sturgeon populations live in politically and economically unstable countries, further hampering effective management.

Habitat degradation - Dam construction and water pollution on sturgeon spawning rivers have seriously hampered the ability of sturgeon populations to reproduce in the wild.

7. What are you recommending?

Consumers should reduce their demand for wild caviar and in particular avoid beluga caviar.

Internationally, governments need to:

  • stop international trade of beluga caviar and increase measures governing sturgeon conservation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at the 15 th Conference of the Parties in The Hague, The Netherlands.
  • increase funding for key programs and initiatives needed to protect and restore all Caspian Sea sturgeon

The United States government needs to:

  • press for a long-term halt to international trade in beluga caviar;
  • press other countries to strengthen sturgeon protection at the international trade level;
  • increase US enforcement of international trade restrictions;
  • strengthen state management of US species of sturgeon which may suffer increased pressure as a result of the declining populations in the Caspian; and
  • promote environmentally sound aquaculture for caviar.

8. What alternatives to Caspian caviar should consumers look for?

Caviar varieties produced from sturgeon and paddlefish farmed in the United States and Europe offer excellent taste and are environmentally sustainable: a win-win situation for culinary professionals and consumers who are concerned about the sharp decline of sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea. Unique roes from farmed trout and wild Alaska salmon are also better choices.

9. Are these really comparable alternatives? Don't chefs and food critics say there are significant differences in taste and quality between beluga caviar and farmed caviar?

Renowned chefs such as TV personality Jacques Pepin, Rick Moonen of New York City, Traci Des Jardins of San Francisco, Nora Pouillon of Washington, DC and Thierry Marx of Paris have raved about the improvements in farmed caviars and have said they are comparable to the finest Caspian caviars.

These homegrown varieties also performed well in taste tests by food critics with the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, as well as Wine Spectator, Gourmet, Forbes and Metropolitan Home magazines. For more information, please see What’s Being Said About American Caviars.

10. How are these species already protected? How will your proposal go further?

All 27 species of sturgeon and paddlefish, including the Caspian Sea species, are listed under CITES. As a result, trade in the three Caspian Sea species is subject to labeling and reporting requirements. While important, these requirements are not sufficient to protect and restore beluga sturgeon, which is in danger of extinction. We recommend a halt to international trade for beluga caviar and more aggressive conservation actions to protect all Caspian Sea sturgeon.

In addition to CITES, 5 of the 10 species and subspecies of sturgeon and paddlefish in the United States are protected under the Endangered Species Act. In Autumn 2005 the United States banned imports of beluga caviar from the Caspian and Black Seas after those nations failed to show evidence of sturgeon conservation and management plans. Caviar Emptor is urging other countries to put in place similar measures.

11. Which countries control Caspian Sea sturgeon fishing and caviar production?

Russia , Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Iran.

12. Is the real problem poaching and if so, aren't you just punishing fishermen who are abiding by the law?

Poaching is a major problem, particularly for sturgeon of the Caspian Sea. Some of our recommendations will help support better fishery management and enforcement in the Caspian region, as well as in the United States. Major new resources are needed to support these efforts.

15. Do you have to kill the sturgeon to retrieve the caviar?

Yes, although on some sturgeon farms have developed a method for performing cesareans, which allows eggs to be removed without killing the fish. However, this practice is largely limited to the artificial reproduction and restocking efforts of Caspian hatcheries and has not been developed for the international caviar trade.

16. Will you take action on other sturgeon species?

For now we are focusing on the three sturgeon species of the Caspian Sea because they provide most of the world's supply of caviar. Our report also makes recommendations for the conservation of United States species that are commercially exploited for caviar.

17. What about caviar from Iran? Should consumers eat that?

The Iranian sturgeon fishery, which operates in the southern part of the Caspian Sea, is generally thought by CITES to be well-managed. About two-thirds of Iran's caviar production is osetra, most of which comes from a species of sturgeon known as Persian sturgeon which is native to the southern Caspian Sea. Even though Iran may have a more effective management program that other Caspian states, there is little scientific information available about the migration of the species, so management problems that plague the northern and middle parts of the sea are likely to affect sturgeon throughout the entire basin, even in Iran. Until there is more information available, consumers would be wise to avoid all beluga caviar, significantly reduce consumption of other Caspian caviars, and choose farmed American caviars instead.

18. Are there problems with aquaculture? Why do you recommend farmed caviar?

While there are environmental concerns regarding aquaculture, caviar derived from aquaculture as practiced in the United States is a much better choice for consumers concerned about endangered Caspian Sea sturgeon.

20. Isn't this just like the Give Swordfish a Break campaign? Have you just moved on to the next species and called for a boycott?

This campaign is part of a larger movement to increase awareness of the impact consumers' choices have on fish. Our aim is to give consumers the information they need to make better choices of more sustainable seafood.

21. Which other countries are significant consumers of Caspian caviar?

In addition to the United States, the European Union, Switzerland and Japan are major importers of Caspian caviar. There is also a domestic market for Caspian caviar in Russia, much of it of an illegal nature.

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