Mr. Robert Gabel
Chief, Division of Scientific Authority
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Room 750
Arlington, Virginia 22203

December 23, 2002

Dear Mr. Gabel:

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb submit the following supplemental comments on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to list the beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) as endangered pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (67 Fed. Reg. 49657 et seq.). Our comments respond to issues raised by other commenters in writing and at the public hearing held by the Service on December 5, 2002.

As noted in our original comments dated October 28, 2002 on the proposed rule, beluga sturgeon is on the brink of extinction. Urgent conservation action is necessary, and our organizations have asked the Service to implement an emergency rule listing beluga sturgeon as endangered as soon as possible. The basis for this request is extensively discussed in our October 28 letter. The following comments respond to four basic arguments submitted by other commenters who oppose the proposed rule.

1. Sturgeon aquaculture

Mr. Paul Zajicek of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Dr. Frank Chapman of the University of Florida argued in their oral presentations that aquaculture promotes beluga sturgeon conservation. Therefore, they argue, sturgeon aquaculture operations should be exempt from the ban on imports of beluga sturgeon that would result from an endangered listing.

We agree that aquaculture can promote beluga sturgeon conservation. Clearly this is the case in the Caspian region, where most reproduction of beluga sturgeon is taking place in hatcheries. In addition, aquaculture operations in the United States involving non-endangered sturgeon species are providing environmentally preferable alternative caviars that, as Mr. Zajieck points out, can relieve the pressure on wild stocks, help sustain the economy and provide jobs and income to local communities. For all these reasons, Caviar Emptor has actively promoted caviar produced through aquaculture of non-endangered sturgeons in the United States. A thriving industry using non-endangered sturgeons has developed, indicating that highly profitable commercial caviar production can go hand in hand with environmental conservation.

Unfortunately, however, this is not the case with the Florida operations described by Mr. Zajicek and Dr. Chapman involving beluga sturgeon. Instead of using only relatively healthy species of sturgeon, as is done elsewhere in the United States, they propose to continue to use highly endangered beluga sturgeon. This might be justifiable if such operations were designed to foster the recovery of beluga sturgeon by actively restoring natural populations. But the testimony indicates that the goal of the operation is to produce commercial quantities of caviar. Moreover, that caviar would come not from beluga, but from a hybrid between beluga and sterlet. According to the testimony, this will require the continued import of broodstock from the wild beluga population. Rather than promote recovery, the operation will further deplete an already endangered species.

In essence, Mssrs. Zajicek and Chapman propose to be allowed to remove reproductive-age beluga females from the highly endangered wild population at a time when there are barely enough females to maintain restocking hatcheries in the Caspian region, in order to facilitate commercial production of a hybrid. It is exceedingly difficult to discern how this will benefit beluga sturgeon. Indeed, their proposal to exempt aquaculture operations from the proposed listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species is clearly contrary to the conservation interests of the species as well to the letter and spirit of the Endangered Species Act. As such, it must be rejected.

Listing beluga sturgeon as endangered will not affect the ability of Mr. Chapman or others to conduct commercial caviar operations with non-endangered species. It will not prevent the development of technologies to culture sturgeons, even beluga, as aquaculture research in this species will continue in range state countries, offering opportunity for these scientists to engage in collaborative research efforts.. And it will neither undermine efforts to promote domestic sturgeon aquaculture nor destroy lawful commercial production of sturgeon products. All of these goals and activities can continue to be pursued using non-endangered sturgeon species.

2. Current conservation efforts by CITES and the range states

A theme echoed in several of the comments (Petrossian, TRAFFIC) that conservation efforts by CITES and the range states are sufficient to address the problems facing beluga sturgeon is unfortunately not borne out by the facts.

As described in detail in our October 28, 2002 letter (pages 3-5), efforts to date by both CITES and the range states, while laudable, are insufficient to address the problems of poaching, poor management, habitat loss and pollution that threaten beluga sturgeon. The profound reforms necessary to render Caspian sturgeon fisheries sustainable will take many years. Unfortunately, beluga sturgeon cannot wait. Immediate action to halt the international trade in beluga caviar is necessary to help preserve the species while long term solutions are developed and implemented. The two temporary suspensions in trade imposed by CITES in 2001 and again this year are clearly not sufficient to restore beluga sturgeon. Slow to mature and reproduce, recovery of beluga sturgeon is likely to require many years, if not decades, of relief from the pressure of international trade in beluga caviar.

3. Poaching and illegal trade

We agree that suspending the legal U.S. trade in beluga caviar through an endangered species listing will not completely stop poaching and overfishing in the range states. But as the world's largest importer of beluga caviar (80% in 2000), U.S. consumption plays a major role in the demand that fuels overfishing and poaching. By removing that demand, we can help buy time for this remarkable fish. In addition, a U.S. ban will set a precedent for other caviar consuming nations, and will provide a powerful incentive to the range states to improve management and enforcement to avoid similar trade restrictions on the other sturgeon species of the Caspian Sea.

Here in the United States, beluga caviar is routinely imported in violation of existing CITES labeling and certification requirements. By eliminating the need to distinguish between legal beluga caviar and illegal beluga caviar, banning the sale of any caviar from beluga or its hybrids may render enforcement more straightforward and effective.

4. Beluga sturgeon population in Kazakhstan waters

Biological indicators that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature suggest that beluga sturgeon are very depleted throughout the Caspian Sea. Caviar Emptor has based its policy recommendations on overwhelming scientific evidence that shows the beluga sturgeon population has declined by more than 90 percent in the past 20 years and cannot withstand any amount of fishing pressure now or in the foreseeable future. The only published Caspian sturgeon survey in the past two years confirmed once again this precipitous drop and is consistent with results of earlier scientific investigations. That survey, conducted by the Caspian range states in late 2001, found only 28 beluga sturgeon in the survey range and 85% of those fish were immature, The small number of reproductively mature fish is of major concern.

These mature fish not only form the basis for caviar production, but are needed to produce the next generation of beluga sturgeon - through either natural spawning or by providing broodstock for hatchery production. The lack of mature beluga sturgeon signals a severely overfished population that will take decades to recover. The scientific information used to justify our call for an ESA listing is the most up-to-date peer-reviewed information available. Studies conducted since submission of our petition in December 2000 confirm earlier results: that the beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea continue to decline, that the demographic structure of the population continues to shift to younger and younger fish, and that the population is too depleted to support fishing pressure.

The sturgeon fishery in Kazakhstan could be one spot of hope for beluga recovery. Kazakhstan's Ural River, as the last free-flowing river feeding the Caspian Sea, could be a key area to concentrate restoration efforts. However, as described in detail in the previously submitted Executive Summary, Research Trip to Kazakhstan (Crownover, October 29, 2002), beluga sturgeon in Kazakhstan are not exempt from serious population decline as a result of overfishing, loss of natural spawning grounds, underfunded hatcheries and poaching. Siltation is a major and ongoing threat to sturgeon habitat and spawning grounds in the Ural River. Kazakh officials report that the Ural becomes more silted every year and that dredging is not being done on wide scale. According to KazNirkh senior scientist Yelena Bokina, “A third of the spawning grounds have been covered by mud and grass between 1970 and 1994.” (Personal communication, October 23, 2002, Atyrau, Kazakhstan).

According to Askar Kamelov, Chairman of KazNirkh Laboratory, the number of beluga spawners in the Ural River dropped from 4,300 in 1997 to 2,700 in 2001. The magnitude of the decline (almost a 50 percent drop) in just four years is very alarming. This point was echoed by Kazakh fishermen who said they were very concerned about the beluga sturgeon. Sanat Tlepberge nov, chairman of Amangeldy Fishing Cooperative, remarked that in the 1980s he once caught 54 beluga in a three-hour period, but now there is “almost nothing” (Personal communication, October 22, 2002,Atyrau, Kazakhstan). And Kadyrzhan Demeuov, head of Atyrau Fisherman's Union, said he was in support of a Caspian-wide moratorium on fishing of all sturgeon species, saying that all are in jeopardy (Personal communication, October 22, 2002, Atyrau, Kazakhstan).

Kazakhstan's two hatcheries hold promise for the future, but they have only been in operation for five years. Thus, the beluga fingerlings that have been released into Caspian waters, if they survive, will not reach maturity for at least another decade and are not yet contributing to recovery of the species. Hatcheries estimate a 0.8 or 1 percent survival rate for the fingerlings, yet this figure is nothing more than a guess because the hatcheries do not have a monitoring program.

In closing, as documented in our October 28, 2002 comments, and in the Proposed Rule itself, beluga sturgeon is a species on the brink of extinction. The source of the world's most prized caviar, these remarkable fish have been decimated by overfishing and poaching to supply the caviar trade, loss of critical spawning habitat, and ineffective management. International action to date has failed to halt beluga's downward spiral, and the point is rapidly approaching where the species may no longer be recoverable. Urgent action is necessary. We therefore request that the Service proceed with an endangered listing on an emergency, expedited basis.

Thank you for considering these comments.

Lisa Speer
Andrew Wetzler
Natural Resources Defense Council

Ellen Pikitch
Liz Lauck
Wildlife Conservation Society

Vikki Spruill
Shannon Crownover


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