Background: The Decline of the Caspian Sea Sturgeon

Sturgeon, the source of the world's caviar, have survived since the days the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The question now is whether these "living fossils" can survive the relentless fishing pressure, pollution and habitat destruction that have brought many species of sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Today, the 27 species of sturgeon and their close relatives, paddlefish, are in sharp decline, and those living in the Caspian Sea, the cradle of world caviar production, are in crisis.

Clad in bony plates and equipped with broad snouts, some species of sturgeon live to be more than 100 years old and can grow up to 2,500 pounds and 15 feet-long. They face six major problems:

Overharvesting: Sturgeon are the principal source of one of the world's most expensive and sought-after luxury goods -- caviar. The fish eggs, or roe, are collected from female sturgeon after they have been caught and killed. The global caviar market has fueled overfishing and poaching around the world.

Illegal trade: Illegal trade of sturgeon and caviar exacerbates conservation problems. Sturgeon products, particularly caviar, are compact, easy to conceal, and extremely valuable. A large portion of the global caviar trade is thought to be illegal.

Life history characteristics: Sturgeon reproduce more slowly than other fish. They can take between six and 25 years to reach sexual maturity, and females of many sturgeon species reproduce only once every three to four years. As a result, sturgeon are vulnerable to overfishing and unable to recover quickly. Depleted sturgeon populations may take a century or more to recover. In addition, their predictable migration patterns and bottom-feeding habits make them relatively easy prey for fishermen

Loss of habitat: Sturgeon migrate up rivers to spawn. Dam construction, diversion of river water for irrigation and other purposes, and siltation of spawning and rearing habitats have nearly eliminated spawning runs on many large river systems used by sturgeon. Dams also alter river flow patterns, disrupting the natural signals that sturgeon rely on in their spawning migrations. Fish "ladders," intended to help fish surmount dams, generally have been ineffective for sturgeon.

Pollution: Pollutants from urban and agricultural runoff and industrial discharges have been linked to significant reproductive and other abnormalities in sturgeon, and to large fish kills.

Current international management measures: All sturgeon species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), two under Appendix I (under which international commercial trade is prohibited) and the rest under Appendix II (under which international trade is allowed only with a CITES permit from the management agency of the exporting nation). Labeling requirements are in force for caviar exports.

These measures, while important, are not sufficient to protect some species of sturgeon, particularly those of the Caspian Sea, which supply most of the world's caviar. Beluga sturgeon, the source of beluga caviar, is so depleted that it may no longer be reproducing naturally in the Caspian Sea region. To prevent extinction of this ancient fish and to prevent other sturgeon species from suffering the same fate, the Caviar Emptor Campaign, launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb, has called for, among other things:

  • An international prohibition on trade in beluga caviar;
  • Listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act;
  • Greater international funding for efforts to protect and restore Caspian Sea sturgeon and their habitats;
  • Support for environmentally sound aquaculture as an alternative to wild sturgeon caviar;
  • Science-based fishery management and rigorous enforcement of trade restrictions concerning all sturgeon fisheries in the Caspian region.

The campaign further recommends that consumers reduce their consumption of caviar and avoid beluga caviar altogether. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound farmed varieties.


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