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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: