U.S. Takes First Step Toward Protecting Endangered Beluga Sturgeon

Conservation groups commend move by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; say halt of beluga caviar trade is a key to species' survival

(July 31, 2002) -- Conservation organizations today applauded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal to list beluga sturgeon -- the source of coveted beluga caviar -- as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If beluga sturgeon is listed as endangered, all importation of beluga caviar into the U.S. would be prohibited. The United States is the world's largest beluga caviar importer.

The Service issued its proposal on July 31, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to compel the Service to act on a petition to protect beluga sturgeon filed in 2000. The petition was put forth by Caviar Emptor, a coalition of NRDC, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and SeaWeb.

"Beluga sturgeon are on the brink of extinction, largely due to the demand for beluga caviar," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the NRDC. "We are literally killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," she said. "The United States imports 80% of the world's beluga caviar. As a result, a ban on beluga caviar imports into the United States would reduce pressure on the fish and improve its prospects for survival."

"It's unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to get the Service to propose listing beluga sturgeon," said Andrew Wetzler and attorney with NRDC. "Now that the Service has finally done the right thing, we'll be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that the Administration stays on track."

Howard Hogan, an attorney with the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, handled the case for NRDC.

The Service has opened a 90-day period for the public to provide comments on its proposed listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species.

Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea -- the cradle of world caviar production -- are in crisis. The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal trade. Experts say the worldwide caviar market is estimated at $100 million, but the illegal traffic of caviar from the Caspian Sea is about 10 times the legal trade. Other major threats to the species include habitat loss and pollution.

"In a recent beluga sturgeon survey in the Caspian Sea, more than 85% of the beluga found were immature, suggesting that this population is severely overfished," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of Marine Programs of WCS. "There are no quick fixes that could remedy this dire situation. As a fish that can take 15 years to mature and can live for 100 years, the sturgeon needs long-term protection."

NRDC, WCS and SeaWeb launched Caviar Emptor in December 2000 to seek a halt to international trade in beluga sturgeon. The groups also support the long-term reduction of export quotas for other Caspian Sea sturgeon and international funding for improved management and enforcement practices.

In March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) approved resumption in the international trade in beluga caviar following a nine-month voluntary halt, despite vehement objections from scientists and environmental organizations. Citing beluga sturgeon's 20-year downward spiral and a recently released scientific report that further documents the fish's perilous state in the Caspian Sea, the three conservation groups of Caviar Emptor have reiterated their call for an immediate and sustained halt in international trade of beluga caviar.

In addition, the three groups are calling on consumers worldwide to avoid beluga caviar and to reduce their consumption of other Caspian Sea caviars until management and enforcement programs that will support sustainable fisheries are adopted. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound farmed varieties. "It is important that the government lead the way in creating measures to protect this imperiled species," said Vikki Spruill, president of SeaWeb. "But just as important is the need for consumers worldwide to make wiser seafood choices. Consumers can send a powerful message by choosing environmentally sound caviars.


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 www.caviaremptor.org.

For comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service, please contact Patricia Fisher at 202-208-1459.


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