In The Hague at the CITES Conference:
Julia Roberson [email protected]

In the United States:
Shannon Crownover [email protected]


Conservation Groups Cite Persistent Decline of Species and Lack of Effective Management for Need to Halt Trade

(September 8, 2003) -- Caviar Emptor, a partnership of environmental groups seeking to restore the Caspian Sea's near-extinct beluga sturgeon, challenged a trade quota, authorized Friday by United Nations, to export Caspian beluga caviar for the remainder of 2003. The conservationists are particularly concerned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Secretariat's claims that the beluga sturgeon population is recovering. Caviar Emptor contends that this is not consistent with the most recent data from the region.

"CITES' assertion is based on faulty methodologies for analyzing fish abundance," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, marine biologist and director of ocean strategy with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of the members of Caviar Emptor. Pikitch's analysis of the most recent stock surveys indicates that the beluga sturgeon population declined by an alarming 39 percent from 2001 to 2002. "The quota for beluga caviar exports should be zero. Any number above that is unwise and unsustainable."

Citing 20 years of scientific evidence illustrating the rapid decline of beluga sturgeon, the three conservation groups of Caviar Emptor - WCS, SeaWeb, and the Natural Resources Defense Council - reiterated that the most effective way to restore the beluga sturgeon population is to stop killing mature fish. The groups expressed disappointment at CITES' eight-month delay in getting the Caspian range states to agree on this year's quotas. The 2003 quotas were announced in September; yet, most of the fishing had been completed in the spring.

"The failure of CITES to take effective action to restrict trade of this highly endangered species highlights the critical importance of prompt action by the United States to halt imports of beluga caviar," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Caviar Emptor is urging the United States, the world's largest importer of the delicacy, to do what it can to help protect beluga sturgeon. As a result of a petition by the members of Caviar Emptor, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed that beluga sturgeon be protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A final decision by the Service is more than a year overdue. Listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species would halt beluga caviar imports into the United States, which accounts for about 60% of the world's beluga caviar imports, according to the most recent statistics. An endangered species listing for beluga sturgeon has been supported by more than 50 renowned marine scientists, the Caspian range state Azerbaijan, 200 of America's most elite chefs and gourmet retailers, and by nearly 3,000 individuals from the Caspian region, Europe, Asia and North America.

"The beluga sturgeon has been called the most valuable wildlife commodity in the world due to its prized caviar," said Vikki Spruill, president of SeaWeb. "Beluga sturgeon is at the center of a battle between politics and science, in which the only winners are the ones who profit from the continued trade of its roe. Consumers can make a difference by choosing eco-friendly caviars farmed in America, rather than eating the eggs of an endangered species."

Overfishing and illegal trade to supply the global caviar market, along with habitat loss and pollution, have decimated sturgeon populations of the Caspian Sea. Caviar Emptor recently established a field office in Kazakhstan to facilitate the implementation of a sturgeon recovery plan. The groups that comprise Caviar Emptor also support increased international funding for stock assessments and a monitoring program as well as the development of basin-wide management and enforcement practices.


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