New Report documents Dramatic Decline in Beluga Sturgeon In the Caspian Sea

Conservation organizations call for immediate halt to international trade of beluga caviar

(January 23, 2002) -- Citing a report released this week that documents the perilous state of beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, three conservation organizations through the Caviar Emptor campaign reiterated their call for an immediate and sustained halt in international trade of caviar from the endangered beluga sturgeon.

The survey-- released by the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), an internationally funded regional organization for environmentally sustainable development -- found only 28 beluga sturgeon in the entire survey region, of which 85 percent were immature.

"The numbers presented in this new report are very discouraging for the prospects of saving the beluga sturgeon. The species has reached a critical point that is worse than we expected. The survey report shows that in just the past seven years, there has been more than a 40 percent decline in mature beluga sturgeon in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, and it shows no evidence of mature beluga sturgeon in the middle and southern Caspian," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Director of Marine Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). "This new survey presents significant evidence of the beluga sturgeon's accelerating decline toward extinction."

Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said, "The United States and the international community must act quickly to stop the trade in beluga caviar if beluga sturgeon is to be rescued from extinction." Speer criticized the United States for its failure to exert leadership in the effort to save beluga sturgeon. 

There are several upcoming opportunities for the international community and the United States to protect beluga sturgeon.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the international body that regulates the wildlife trade, is currently finalizing 2002 catch and export quotas for Caspian sturgeon species. As well, the policy-making committee of CITES, which is currently chaired by the United States, will meet in mid-March in Geneva and will be addressing Caspian states' progress on sturgeon conservation since it last met in June 2001. At the June 2001 meeting, CITES placed a temporary, six-month suspension on sturgeon catches, but rejected the recommendations of scientists and conservation organizations to impose significant long-term reductions on the caviar trade that are needed to help save dwindling populations of sturgeon.

In addition, the U.S. government is currently considering a petition filed by Caviar Emptor, a program of leading conservation organizations' NRDC, WCS and SeaWeb -- to list beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which would have the effect of banning the importation of beluga caviar into the United States. The United States is the world's largest importer of beluga caviar.   "The U.S. government has failed to meet the mandatory deadlines specified in the Endangered Species Act," Speer said.  "The survey results lend added urgency to the need for quick action. The government should stop dragging its feet."

For the past year, Caviar Emptor has been recommending a halt to the trade of beluga caviar as a key to the survival of the beluga sturgeon. The groups also support the long-term reduction of export quotas for other Caspian Sea sturgeon, and international funding for ongoing stock assessments and improved management and enforcement practices. "A ban on the international beluga caviar trade is vital to help prevent extinction of this remarkable fish while a comprehensive restoration plan can be developed and implemented," Pikitch said.

Overfishing and illegal trade to supply the global caviar market, along with habitat loss and pollution, have decimated sturgeon populations around the world. Among the most significantly affected are sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, source of most of the world's caviar. Of the most concern is beluga sturgeon, whose populations are estimated to have declined by more than 90 percent in the past twenty years. It is widely believed that beluga sturgeon no longer reproduce in the wild.

Caviar Emptor is also calling on consumers worldwide to avoid beluga caviar and to reduce their consumption of other Caspian Sea caviars during this crisis. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound farmed varieties.

"An increasing number of chefs and consumers have joined our effort to protect Caspian Sea sturgeon by choosing other good-tasting caviars that are better for the environment," said Vikki Spruill, president of SeaWeb.  "But this is a critical situation that will require a sustained commitment from governments, industry, scientists, conservationists and consumers around the world for many years to come. The alternative may be the loss of a magnificent species that has existed since the time of dinosaurs."

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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.

 

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