Consumer and government action is urgently needed to address the problems facing sturgeon of the Caspian Sea. The United States consumes about one-third of the world's caviar, so the U.S. government and its consumers have the responsibility to do what they can to ensure the continued viability of sturgeon.

Policy Recommendations

  1. Stop the international trade of beluga sturgeon caviar.
  2. Beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea region is on the brink of extinction, and decisive action is necessary. While CITES trade restrictions may have reduced export of illegally produced caviar from Russia, these restrictions are only a first step in halting the decline. International trade in beluga caviar needs to be stopped immediately to reduce the pressure on beluga sturgeon.

    Two CITES fora provide mechanisms to stop international trade of beluga caviar. The first is the CITES "significant trade review" process, whereby species of concern are evaluated by a CITES committee of experts to determine the status of the species and the effects of international trade on that species. Ten species of sturgeon and paddlefish, including the principal Caspian Sea species, are being evaluated, and findings, recommendations, and requests for more information are expected to be issued to the "range states," (the countries in which the species of concern occur) in December, 2000. Based on the response of the range states, final recommendations will be made during 2001. The United States, and all CITES parties, should pursue a recommendation to halt international trade in beluga caviar in the context of the significant trade review process currently underway.

    Over the longer term, the United States and other CITES parties should seek to move beluga sturgeon from Appendix II of CITES, under which international trade is permitted subject to compliance with certain permit and other requirements, to Appendix I, under which all international trade is banned. Beluga sturgeon clearly meet the trade and biological criteria for inclusion in Appendix I. Listing beluga on Appendix I will mean that beluga caviar can no longer be traded legally on the international market. The most promising opportunity to secure such a listing is at the next meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties in 2002.

  3. List beluga sturgeon as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
  4. Foreign and domestic species can be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 when such a species is "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." Many foreign species have been listed under the ESA, including the panda, tiger, certain leopard populations and chimpanzees.

    Under the Endangered Species Act and its implementing regulations, once a species is listed as "endangered," any "taking" is flatly prohibited. "Take" is defined as "to harass, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." It is illegal to import or export, ship in the course of commercial activity, sell or offer for sale any endangered fish or wildlife species .

    As the world's second largest importer of beluga caviar, and the destination of roughly 28,000 pounds of beluga caviar in 1999, a reduction in the U.S. importation of beluga caviar would reduce demand for this caviar and improve the prospects for the species.

  5. Pursue funding for key programs and initiatives needed to protect and restore all of the Caspian Sea species.

    Reduced demand would give the Caspian Sea and other nations the time to implement the following steps necessary to conserve beluga, stellate and Russian sturgeon. These recommendations include those identified by TRAFFIC, an organization with extensive expertise in international trade in endangered species, including sturgeon:

    1. Increase domestic and international funding for enforcement against poaching and for restoration of spawning habitat in the countries bordering the Caspian Sea;
    2. Caspian countries need to enforce a ban on open sea fishing and bottom trawling for sturgeon, reduce annual quotas, and establish or enforce fishing seasons, size limits, provisions for observers on fishing vessels and processing plants, and requirements to release undersized, male and immature sturgeon;
    3. Improve water quality in the Caspian Sea by addressing waste disposal, reducing fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and minimizing oil pollution and industrial discharges;
    4. Maintain and upgrade hatcheries, which are virtually the only sites where beluga reproduction is taking place; and
    5. Create an international program to secure and maintain live specimens of each of the Caspian species of sturgeon in captivity as a safeguard against total extinction.

    Increased funding for sturgeon conservation from international sources, including the Caspian Environment Program, is needed to ensure that effective action is taken. The United States should aggressively pursue funding opportunities for sturgeon conservation in international aid programs to the region.

  6. Beef up U.S. enforcement of international trade restrictions.
  7. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), there are 12 FWS enforcement agents in the New York area, and 91 others nationwide. These agents are responsible for handling all illegal trade in wildlife. More resources for detecting and prosecuting smugglers are needed to help deter poaching and illegal trade to the United States.

  8. Promote environmentally sound aquacultured caviar as an alternative to Caspian Sea caviar.
  9. A number of aquaculture operations in the United States and elsewhere produce caviar or are preparing to produce caviar. These operations have the potential to supply some of the demand for caviar. While aquaculture represents a major opportunity to reduce pressure on wild populations, it also raises environmental concerns, including pollution, possible escape of aquacultured fish, use of fishmeal and fish oil from wild-caught fish, and enforcement issues. The following steps are needed to minimize these concerns.

    Closely regulate discharges of pollutants including food waste, excretory products, antibiotics used to control disease, and pesticides used in aquaculture operations. Most sturgeon aquaculture operations in the U.S. employ closed systems, reducing this concern substantially. Regulations requiring all sturgeon aquaculture operations to employ closed systems is an important and needed step.

    Minimize feed derived from fish caught specifically for fish meal production. Producers should reduce the amount of wild fishmeal and fish oil used in sturgeon diets. Using wild fish to grow farmed fish raises concerns about fishing some populations to feed others, especially because wild fish are a principal source of protein for many people and play a key role in ocean ecosystems.

    Ensure escape of aquacultured sturgeon does not occur. Given that sturgeon aquaculture in the United States is generally conducted in land-based, enclosed facilities, escapes are much less likely than from ocean pens such as those used in salmon aquaculture. However, should escapes occur, any viruses or other diseases associated with cultured white sturgeon could carry infection to wild populations. Hybridization of wild populations with escapees is also a concern.

    Establish certification of aquacultured sturgeon, or otherwise ensure the origin of farmed sturgeon products, so that they don't become a way to "launder" illegally caught or imported sturgeon meat and caviar.

    It is critically important that domestic and international standards be developed to address these and other concerns related to aquaculture. Here in the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently developing regulatory standards for the aquaculture industry. The agency needs to address the environmental issues related to aquaculture in a comprehensive and rapid manner.

  10. Strengthen state management of U.S. species of sturgeon

    Sturgeon management in the United States is generally patchy. Many states lack scientifically-based controls on the amount of fish that can be landed, particularly for paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon. Even for those states that do have some controls, basic biological information is not used to determine allowable fishing levels and the fisheries are not closely monitored. It is therefore often difficult to determine whether a given caviar fishery is biologically sustainable.

    Inconsistent management programs for U.S. sturgeon species leaves them vulnerable to overfishing if beluga or other Caspian Sea caviar is not available at current levels. States should make development of comprehensive scientific and management programs a top priority for paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon. The Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Agency (MICRA), composed of 28 states in the Mississippi River basin, is a non-regulatory agency that plays an important role in range-wide cooperative activities for fish of the Mississippi River basin. Congress should consider granting MICRA, or a similar interstate management authority, legal authority to develop and implement comprehensive interstate management plans for paddlefish, shovelnose and other sturgeon of the Mississippi River system.

    Remedial action to restore sturgeon spawning and rearing habitat is another priority for North American sturgeon and paddlefish. While fisheries for the largest U.S. populations of white sturgeon are carefully managed using biological reference points, other segments of the population are sparse or below historical abundance. Flow regulation and habitat alteration have hurt these populations' reproductive success, and meaningful habitat and flow restoration are needed to help ensure their long-term viability.

Consumer recommendations

The most important step consumers can take is to reduce their consumption of caviar, the market for which is adversely affecting many sturgeon populations around the world. Caviar needs to become an item limited to only the most special occasions. Avoid beluga caviar in particular. Better choices include:

1. Aquacultured Sturgeon Caviar

While environmental issues remain regarding sturgeon aquaculture, aquacultured caviar is a much better choice for consumers concerned about the future of Caspian Sea sturgeon. These are questions that consumers should ask of producers and suppliers:

  1. What kind of system is the fish raised in?

    Tip: A recirculating system is generally preferable to a flow-through system, because it minimizes water use and reduces effluent discharge.

  2. How is wastewater treated before it is released from the sturgeon tanks?

    Tip: A polyculture system (where water is reused for the culture of other species) is best. Wastewater should not be released in a manner that pollutes the surrounding environment.

  3. What are the sturgeon being fed? How much wild fish meal and oil are they eating?

Tip: Producers should be lowering the ratio of wild fish used in the production of farmed sturgeon.

2. North Star Caviar/Yellowstone Caviar

North Star Caviar was launched in 1993 as a joint venture of two non-profit organizations, the Williston (North Dakota) Area Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of Fort Union Trading Post. Just across the Yellowstone River in Glendive, Montana is a similar program called Yellowstone Caviar. During the six-week recreational paddlefish season on the Yellowstone River, anglers from the two states get free fish cleaning in return for donating eggs (caviar) to the Chambers of Commerce. The anglers keep the paddlefish meat and the Chambers of Commerce process the caviar. North Star Caviar and Yellowstone Caviar market the caviar and the proceeds are used to fund civic, cultural, and educational community projects (60 percent) as well as to support paddlefish research and conservation (40 percent). State fishery biologists are on hand to collect biological information on the fish, help monitor the fishery and set annual catch levels.

The North Dakota and Montana fisheries together catch up to 3,000 fish each year. North Star Caviar produced approximately 1,500 pounds of paddlefish roe from the 2000 fishery. By 1996, Montana's portion of the program alone had grossed over one million dollars and had supported 117 community projects.

This program benefits not only the communities of eastern Montana and western North Dakota, but it also helps protect paddlefish and provides an excellent example of a limited fishery for caviar. However, management of this fishery, as well as other paddlefish fisheries, needs to be improved by the application of biological status information to determining sustainable catch levels.

While the North Star program represents a sound approach from the standpoint of sturgeon, consumers should be aware that the state of North Dakota has issued a consumption advisory for paddlefish due to mercury contamination.

North Star caviar, Yellowstone caviar, and aquacultured caviar are better choices for consumers concerned about Caspian Sea sturgeon. But they cannot supply the demand that will be left by the decline of Caspian Sea sturgeon and caviar. In order to prevent demand from serially depleting other sturgeon species, reducing consumption of caviar is essential.

Consumers have a key role to play in promoting the conservation of endangered species of sturgeon by reducing their demand for caviar and choosing their caviar sources with conservation in mind. Consumers can also encourage the U.S. government to aggressively advocate effective conservation measures, restrictions on trade, and funding for conservation, management and enforcement in the Caspian Sea region. But we all need to act, and act quickly, if these remarkable fish are to be saved.

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