March 15, 2002

This week at the CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, the Caviar Emptor coalition of Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb asked trade officials to reconsider their approval of the resumption of the beluga caviar trade. Today, it is evident that CITES will allow the beluga caviar trade to resume, despite vehement objections from scientists and environmental organizations.

The CITES Secretariat announced its intention to resume the Caspian caviar trade more than a week ago, but it has not provided a rationale to justify its decision nor any scientific evidence to support its estimates of beluga sturgeon numbers in the Caspian Sea.

Environmentalists are alarmed because overwhelming scientific evidence collected over the past two decades shows that beluga sturgeon are on the brink of extinction and cannot support any level of fishing or trade, now or in the foreseeable future.

It is evident that process is being put before conservation. CITES has commended the Caspian states for trying to collaborate on sturgeon conservation. But newly established governmental cooperation, while an important step forward, has not had enough time to make an impact on the health of sturgeon populations and is not sufficient to stop the downward spiral of beluga sturgeon.

The Caviar Emptor campaign is extremely disappointed that CITES did not take stronger action to protect beluga sturgeon. The decision to resume the beluga caviar trade is another nail in the coffin for this fish.

Science Shows Beluga Sturgeon Are On The Brink Of Extinction
The Caviar Emptor campaign first announced its position on the beluga caviar trade in December 2000 and simultaneously released a comprehensive report based on peer-reviewed scientific literature which makes a strong case that beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea is on the brink of extinction. Every piece of scientific evidence we have seen since that time further reinforces this conclusion.

The beluga sturgeon population has declined by more than 90 percent in the past two decades. A recent stock assessment found fewer and younger beluga sturgeon than ever before. Experts believe beluga sturgeon may no longer be reproducing in the wild and that their survival is entirely dependent on the hatcheries. In recent years, local fishermen and Russian fisheries officials have complained that there are almost no beluga available to supply fertilized eggs to the hatcheries, raising serious questions about the viability of the population.

CITES' Own Scientists Recommended Drastic Trade Reductions
Last year, the scientific arm of CITES recommended an 80 percent reduction in Caspian sturgeon/caviar export quotas to protect the fish. Yet, this year, CITES has reduced overall export quotas by only 9.6 percent. The minimal trade reductions that CITES has approved for 2002 are too little, too late for beluga sturgeon.

Beluga Sturgeon Will Require Decades Or Longer To Recover
There are no quick fixes that could remedy this dire situation. Sturgeons reproduce more slowly than other fish, and females of many sturgeon species reproduce only once every three to four years. Therefore, sturgeon are particularly vulnerable to overfishing and unable to recover quickly. Beluga sturgeon require 15 years to reach maturity and can live for more than 100 years, so this fish needs long-term protection if it is to recover.

There Is Hope For Beluga Sturgeon
The Caviar Emptor campaign will continue to seek the strongest possible protection for beluga sturgeon. We will continue to urge long-term protection for this fish through an uplisting of beluga sturgeon to Appendix I of CITES. It is also imperative that the Caspian states implement a comprehensive restoration plan that addresses poaching, habitat loss and pollution.

In the meantime, the United States can take action right away by listing beluga sturgeon as an endangered species. This listing would have the effect of banning beluga caviar imports into the United States, which is currently its largest consumer.

The beluga sturgeon has been called the most valuable fish in the world because of its coveted caviar. The beluga sturgeon has lived since the days dinosaurs roamed the earth, but with CITES' decision to resume the beluga caviar trade, the question now is whether the magnificent fish will be able to survive the relentless pressure that feeds the world's appetite for its caviar. Often heralded as a 'status symbol', it is more important now than ever for consumers to know that it is in bad taste to eat the eggs of the endangered beluga sturgeon.

Consumers can help the beluga sturgeon survive for many years to come by choosing other good-tasting, farmed caviar varieties that are better for the environment. There is a growing selection of environmentally sound caviars that have been praised by chefs. For example, caviar varieties produced from sturgeon and paddlefish farmed in the United States offer excellent taste and are environmentally sustainable. 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.

Signed By:
Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York City Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Director of Marine Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY Vikki Spruill, President, SeaWeb, Washington, DC


For more information or interviews with Caviar Emptor spokespeople, please contact Shannon Crownover ([email protected]) or Sunny Wu ([email protected]) at 202-483-9570.  For a complete report on the decline of Caspian Sea sturgeon, see


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