Excerpts from Media Coverage of the Caspian Sturgeon Crisis


International Herald Tribune: According to officials in Atyrau (Kazakhstan), the main town on the Ural, the two hatcheries there that normally take eggs from spawning beluga to restock the species this year failed for the first time to catch a single female. “All our predictions are coming true,” said a local official who has unsuccessfully fought for a moratorium on the species for years and who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The species is disappearing.” (Sept 9, 2005)

Science magazine: According to the magazine, “Caspian nations in 2004 caught only 760 tons of sturgeon, the smallest figure in a century, down from 26,600 tons in 1985,” and the Iranian-led July 2005 survey of the Caspian sturgeon population shows “sturgeon stocks are down 20% to 30% from last year.” (Sept 16, 2005)

Fish and Fisheries magazine: A study published by Caviar Emptor scientists’ Drs. Ellen Pikitch and Phaedra Doukakis said: “Calculations indicate dangerously small populations of beluga and harvest quotas equivalent to removal of nearly all mature individuals.”The paper, the most comprehensive review to date on the world’s sturgeon fisheries, called for fishing moratorium on beluga sturgeon. (Sept 22, 2005)

Science magazine: “We found very few mature sturgeon,” says Dr. Arkadiusz Labon, a Toronto-based fisheries consultant who coordinated the first internationally observed fish stock survey in the Caspian in 2001. “That’s a sure sign of dramatic overfishing.” Labon argues that a 10-year fishing ban—without loopholes such as a permissible “scientific” catch—is essential to rescue the sturgeon from extinction. (Jan 18, 2002)

Newsweek magazine: “Ninety percent of young adults have been fished,” says Raisa Khodorevskaya, a senior sturgeon researcher the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute in Russia. “It’s like after the second world war—there are plenty of young ones, but most of the adults are gone.” CITES may ultimately have to resort to a comprehensive boycott of caviar, similar to its successful moratorium on ivory in 1990. At best, the fight to save the sturgeon will take decades to win. (July 30, 2001)

The New York Times: Alexander Kitanov of the Bios hatchery on the Volga said he was unable to catch enough mature [beluga] females to produce his quota of fingerlings and now had to rely on adults he had been housing for just this purpose. (Jan 6, 2004)

Conservation Biology magazine: “With natural spawning habitat reduced by at least 90% by dam construction and the hatcheries in collapse, any continued fishing may end up vacuuming up the remaining immature individuals, leading to both biological and economic extinction of the [beluga sturgeon] species,” said Dr. Joshua Ginsberg, director of WCS Asia and Africa programs. (Oct 2002)

Interfax News Service: The only Kazakhstani fish plant, Atyraubalyk in Atyrau oblast, western Kazakhstan, has produced 7 tons of black caviar this year. “It is much less than in 2002 when the company produced 15 tons of black caviar,” the company’s vice-president Abulkhair Muhsanov told Interfax. He explained that the reduction in volume was due to fewer sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. (Nov 13, 2003)

Agence France Presse: Russia has halved its production of black caviar in 2003 to 50 tonnes and reduced its exports from 30 tonnes last year to 20 tonnes this year, state fisheries officials told Agence France-Presse (AFP). The reductions are an effort to boost dwindling sturgeon stocks. While the reductions in caviar production and the efforts made to restock through artificial reproduction will have some effect, this is likely to be undermined by the practice of sturgeon poaching and caviar smuggling. (Nov 21, 2003)


In September 2003, in an effort to affect the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on listing beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, CITES submitted reports opposing the listing and claiming a recovery in the beluga sturgeon population. The CITES data came from a Russian governmental fisheries institute that has since been widely questioned by scientists.

The New York Times: “It’s not right to say the beluga population has increased over two years. It’s not possible. I think they should ban the fishing of beluga for at least a couple of years,” said Dr. Vladimir Ivanov, former director of Caspian Fisheries Research Institute in Russia. (Jan 6, 2004)

New Scientist magazine: “CITES is using unreliable data without any review by independent experts. It is expecting us to believe they have performed a miracle,” said Dr. Vadim Birstein, a Russian-born sturgeon specialist who was instrumental in having CITES regulate the caviar trade. (Sept 17, 2003)

MSNBC and The Moscow Times: “CITES’ assertion is based on faulty methodologies for analyzing fish abundance. [Russian officials] are basing their estimates on catching 56 fish at sea last year to reach the figure of 11.6 million. That's ridiculous,” said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, professor of marine science at the University of Miami and executive director of the new Pew Institute for Ocean Science. (Sept 8, 2003, and Sept 11, 2003)

The New York Times: Four American and Canadian fisheries specialists were asked to look at the Russian numbers. They found that the methods were flawed and that the study populations were too small. “I have worked extensively on trawl fisheries, and on this very issue of catchability, and have never encountered anyone using such low catchabilities for large benthic fishes,” said Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. (Jan 6, 2004)


Science magazine: Richard Stone quotes Mohammad Pourkazemi, director of the International Sturgeon Research Institute in Iran, as saying, “If illegal catch and environmental deterioration continue at the same pace, we will soon witness the extinction of sturgeon stocks in the Caspian.” (Sept 16, 2005)

Moscow Times: The Geneva-based Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES, responsible for issuing quotas for caviar from sturgeon, an endangered species, says it does not expect to approve any exports from the Caspian Sea at all this year because the five states that border it have failed to bring illegal fishing to heel. In the early 1990s, Russian scientists estimated the basin-wide illegal catch of beluga, sevruga and osetra was more than 10 times the legal one.  Today, the proportion is estimated generally at two to five times the legal catch. In the case of beluga, this means that between 60 percent and 100 percent of the beluga swimming up the Ural river are caught before they can spawn -- a clearly unsustainable level that explains why stocks have dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years. (Sept 10, 2004)

Agence France Presse: Nearly 80 percent of the Russian fish trade is illegal, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday on a visit to this struggling Pacific port town that relies heavily on the industry. The trade in fish, and particularly Russian caviar, has been largely done on the underground market and overseen by mafia bosses and corrupt regional officials since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. (June 23, 2004)

ITAR-TASS News Agency: Criminal proceeds from the shadow fishing and caviar business can be compared to proceeds from arms and narcotics sales, Vladimir Yakovlev, plenipotentiary envoy of the Russian president in the Southern Federal District, said today opening a conference on coordination of effort to protect the bioresources of the Black, Caspian and Azov seas. He quoted specialists' data, according to which the sturgeon population in the Caspian and Azov seas is currently "in a state of biological depression". According to Yakovlev, over the past 15 years sevruga in the Caspian has gone down 34 times, beluga 35 times and osetra 58 times. Yakovlev mentioned poaching among the causes of this state of affairs. According to him, up to 90 per cent of all black caviar on the market comes from poaching. At the same time he said it was not a secret to anyone that "poachers are being protected by those who are supposed to fight against them". (June 24, 2004)

World Markets Analysis: Russian police seized three tons of poached caviar that could pose a health hazard just before it hit Moscow supermarket shelves, prosecutors said yesterday, the Moscow Times reports. (May 28, 2004)

United Press International: The president of a Polish caviar company has been sentenced in Miami to 30 months in prison for caviar smuggling, the Justice Department said Friday. Chomicz was directly responsible for 619 kilograms of smuggled caviar worth as much as $1.8 million, the department said. (May 21, 2004)

Time magazine: “Most of the caviar in the country has been brought in illegally,” said Edward Grace, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent who investigated the smuggling and mislabeling case against the convicted owner of Caspian Sea Caviar, the NY-based company that previously handled 60% of the caviar imported by the United States. (Dec 23, 2002)

Science magazine: The sturgeon’s enemies are legion, but poachers may be taking the heaviest toll. Last year they fueled a shadow caviar market estimated at $400 million, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry. (Jan 18, 2002)

The New York Times: Sal Amato, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the odds of being cheated when buying almost any wild caviar are close to 90 to 1. Despite 18 to 20 convictions over the last two years, he said, “the market is still rife with black market caviar.” (Nov 14, 2002)


The Washington Post:  “By simply avoiding beluga caviar, we can play a role in the recovery of this ancient fish. I am one of a growing number of chefs who have replaced beluga caviar on their menus with great-tasting farmed caviars from the United States,” said Chef Nora Pouillon in an opinion-editorial. (Dec 31, 2003)

The New York Times: “If I - and everyone else who has had the good fortune to try Caspian caviar - want to be able to enjoy it in the future, we must stop eating it now, until the fish who produce this delicacy are no longer in danger. There are many luxuries in life in which we can still indulge. The beluga sturgeon can't afford for us to indulge in this one,” said Chef Jacques Pepin in an opinion-editorial. (July 3, 2001)


Compiled by Caviar Emptor, September 2005


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