Wildlife Officials to Consider Ban on Caviar Exports from Major Caspian Sea Nations

Conservation groups support trade ban as a key to survival for endangered beluga sturgeon

(June 18, 2001) -- Caviar exports from major Caspian Sea nations, source of much of the world's caviar, could be banned starting July 20, depending on the outcome of an international meeting of wildlife trade officials this week in Paris.

Caspian Sea sturgeon -- whose eggs produce coveted beluga, sevruga and osetra caviar -- are in sharp decline, and beluga sturgeon is on the brink of extinction. The region's principal caviar exporting nations -- including the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- have been asked by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to slash their caviar exports by 80 percent to protect remaining sturgeon populations. If the nations do not agree to reduce quotas and adopt other measures to improve management and enforcement, CITES could enact a ban on exports at its policy-making committee meeting next week.

Of the most concern is beluga sturgeon, whose population in the Caspian Sea has plunged by more than 90 percent in the past 20 years. Leading conservation organizations say a halt to the international trade of beluga caviar is a key to the survival of this endangered species.

On June 13, an agreement was reached between the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on guidelines to improve sturgeon management and enforcement. By failing to include significant quota reductions, it falls far short of the immediate actions necessary to protect Caspian Sea sturgeon.

"The scientific arm of CITES concluded last spring that both management improvements and quota reductions are necessary to conserve Caspian Sea sturgeon. The agreement apparently addresses only half of this equation," said Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Dramatic and long-term reductions in export quotas are necessary to protect sturgeon, and for beluga, export quotas need to be zero to stop its headlong spiral toward extinction."

Conservation organizations believe quota reductions will help reduce the pressure on sturgeon and provide fishing nations with the time to implement important recovery measures. International aid is also needed to provide Caspian Sea nations with the assistance they need to enhance management and enforcement practices.

The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal trade amidst other major threats to the species, which include habitat loss and pollution. Demand for the delicacy is highest in the European Union, Switzerland, the United States and Japan, which together account for 95 percent of the world's total caviar imports.

"It will take a long-term, global commitment to save the beluga sturgeon. And this commitment must be made now, for there are no quick fixes that could remedy this dire situation," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Director of Marine Programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Caspian countries must act immediately to stop fishing for this species approaching extinction. But consumer nations also should take action by refusing to traffic in the eggs of an endangered species and by halting imports of this imperiled fish."

Through their Caviar Emptor program, NRDC, WCS and SeaWeb also have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Service has until December 2001 to decide whether to propose beluga sturgeon for the listing. If it is listed as an endangered species, U.S. imports of beluga caviar would be prohibited.

NRDC, WCS and SeaWeb launched Caviar Emptor in December 2000 to seek a halt to international trade in beluga sturgeon; to call for greater international funding for efforts to protect and restore Caspian Sea sturgeon; and to point consumers to preferred environmentally friendly caviar alternatives.

"It is important for governments to lead the way in protecting sturgeon, but it is also vital for consumers to make wiser seafood choices," said Vikki Spruill, President of SeaWeb. "We want consumers to know that it is in 'bad taste' to eat the eggs of the endangered beluga sturgeon, which has survived since the time of dinosaurs. Consumers can help the fish survive for many years to come by choosing other good-tasting varieties that are better for the environment."

Caviar Emptor recommends that consumers reduce their consumption of Caspian Sea caviar and completely avoid beluga caviar. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound farmed varieties.


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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