Endorsements roll in for proposed U.S. Endangered Species listing; international trade officials freeze beluga caviar exports

(October 27, 2002) -- 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 has been met with support from a Caspian Sea nation as well as more than 50 scientists, 70 chefs and thousands of individuals in the United States and beyond. The Service's 90-day public comment period ends October 29, although an extension is possible.

In a separate development on the international level, the United Nations' agency responsible for regulating global trade in endangered species froze exports of beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea until further notice for the second time in little over a year. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species cited the lack of effective coordinated management of beluga sturgeon catches and exports. Noting similar problems last year, CITES suspended trade in beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea in July 2001, but allowed it to resume in March of this year.

"While the most recent suspension of trade may offer temporary relief for beluga sturgeon, a U.S. Endangered Species listing would help provide the long-term protection necessary to bring this species back from the brink of extinction," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The beluga sturgeon population has plunged more than 90 percent in the past 20 years, and is now well beyond threatened status. Trade of its eggs is not sustainable now or in the foreseeable future."

If approved, an endangered species listing would prohibit all importation of beluga caviar into the United States, the world's largest beluga caviar importer. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued its proposal on July 31, 2002, in response to a lawsuit filed in 2002 by 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 conservation organizations NRDC, the Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb.

Supporting this important measure to protect beluga sturgeon is the government of Azerbaijan, one of five nations bordering the Caspian Sea that is home to most of the world's remaining beluga sturgeon. In a letter to the Service, Azerbaijan's Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Gussein Bagirov stated, "catch of beluga in the Caspian Sea has significantly dropped during the last decades," and that "continued fishing pressure on these populations is not affordable." Bagirov's letter recommended that "at this stage it would make much sense if the allocated quota were used for reproduction purposes rather than for commercial catch."

Overwhelming support for the beluga sturgeon U.S. endangered species listing was also received from leading marine scientists from major academic institutions, including Harvard University, Duke University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of Connecticut, University of Minnesota, and University of Washington as well as from a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In a joint letter to the Service in support of the listing, more than 50 scientists stated, "Beluga sturgeon is on the brink of extinction throughout its range, and dramatic action is necessary if this species is to be preserved."

Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of ocean strategy for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said, "Scientists around the world agree that there are no quick fixes that could remedy the dire situation facing beluga sturgeon. The increasingly precarious state of the beluga sturgeon population indicates that current levels of protection are insufficient to halt the species' downward spiral."

Caviar Emptor's comments to the Service included a scientific review of the Caspian states' process for setting 2002 catch and export quotas for sturgeon. In the review, Pikitch and marine biologist Liz Lauck of WCS point out numerous flaws in that process, stating that it is "plagued by inadequate description and justification of methodologies used, a lack of statistical rigor, and a failure to describe the scientific uncertainty associated with various estimates." One of the major problems revealed is the Caspian states' overestimation of beluga sturgeon abundance by a factor of 25, which has resulted in an unsustainable level of fishing.

Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea 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.

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 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 farmed caviars."

Leading that charge are nearly 70 renowned U.S. chefs and seafood purveyors who submitted a letter of support to the Service for listing beluga sturgeon as an endangered species. The letter, signed by chefs from New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, DC, and more, states, "As chefs and retailers of seafood, some of us have removed beluga caviar from our offerings and replaced it with sustainable varieties. We recognize that protecting this species now will help ensure that future generations might be able to enjoy beluga caviar again."

Consumers across the United States have endorsed better protection for beluga sturgeon, with more than 2,000 signatures received during a public petition drive to list the fish on the endangered species list.


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, click here.

For U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service inquiries, please contact Patricia Fisher at 202-208-1459.


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