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

In the United States:
Shannon Crownover [email protected]


Environmentalists dismiss reduction in quotas as symbolic because fishing season has ended; call on consumers to choose eco-friendly farmed caviars rather than beluga cavia

(October 7, 2004) Environmentalists and sturgeon scientists expressed alarm at CITES’ announcement today that the Caspian caviar trade could resume, a move they say pushes the imperiled beluga sturgeon closer to the brink of extinction and delivers a blow to international efforts to get the Caspian states to take sturgeon conservation seriously.

Even though CITES announced a reduction in Caspian caviar exports as compared to 2003, the move is largely symbolic because this year’s fishing season has concluded. In absence of a CITES’ directive on export quotas, the Caspian states based their 2004 catch allowance on last year’s numbers, which did not take illegal fishing into account.

“This is the second year in a row that CITES has delayed announcing quotas after nearly all the fish have been caught,” said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, professor and executive director of the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science. Pikitch, who is attending the CITES conference this week in Bangkok, went on to say, “The CITES process is not working, and beluga are moving closer and closer to extinction.”

Pikitch’s organization is part of Caviar Emptor, a sturgeon conservation coalition that also includes SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Last month, CITES said the 2004 Caspian caviar trade would remain frozen until the states fulfilled the obligations of an international sturgeon conservation agreement, including taking illegal fishing into account when setting sustainable fishing levels. CITES’ decision to open trade came as a significant surprise because just two days ago its press release said, “the caviar trade is infested with organized crime networks,” indicating that the situation was far from under control.

“CITES has flip-flopped under the pressure of heavy lobbying by Caspian states and the caviar industry,” said Vikki Spruill, president of SeaWeb. “CITES is on the wrong side of the effort to save the beluga sturgeon and is clearly putting trade first and endangered wildlife last.”

The recent action by CITES stands in direct contrast to statements by its own officials and recent news reports:

  • James Armstrong, deputy secretary general of CITES, told Science magazine last month that estimating levels of illegal fishing had been “difficult for [the Caspian states]…almost impossible.”  To the Washington Times three weeks ago, Armstrong said if the level of illegal fishing was greater than the legal catch, "there is no way they are going to have a legal catch."
  • In its December 2001 newsletter dedicated to sturgeon, the CITES Secretariat said, “It is estimated that for every ton of fish caught legally, at least five tons are harvested illegally. Some estimates even place the illegal offtake as high as 12 times the legal catch.” 
  • This summer, an envoy of the Russian president, Vladimir Yakovlev, told ITAR-TASS news agency that up to 90 percent of all black caviar on the market comes from poaching. He went on to say, “Poachers are being protected by those who are supposed to fight against them.”

Despite continued testimony that poaching takes more sturgeon than legal fishing and that regional enforcement measures are lax, CITES opted not for the ban it had threatened but instead changed its public position by announcing that 2004 quotas would be granted at a reduced level.

“By not sticking to their guns and not requiring real reform, CITES is abetting the continued decline of Caspian sturgeon,” said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We are extremely disappointed.”

In addition to overfishing and poaching of Caspian sturgeon, habitat loss and pollution have contributed to the decline of the species.

For nearly four years, Caviar Emptor has called for a long-term ban on the international trade of beluga caviar as a way to protect the beluga sturgeon from extinction. In April 2004, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, acting on a petition by Caviar Emptor, declared beluga sturgeon as “threatened with extinction,” thus subjecting it to protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Caviar Emptor has pointed consumers to caviars made in the United States from farmed sturgeon, paddlefish and trout as well as wild salmon and whitefish roes as better choices for the environment.


For interviews with spokespeople, photographs, or video footage, please contact Shannon Crownover, [email protected]. For more information, see


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