Sturgeon Conservation: Strong Action Needed by the CITES Standing Committee

This week, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will meet to consider recommendations to conserve dwindling populations of sturgeon, the source of the world's caviar.

Overfishing and illegal harvest to supply the global caviar trade, along with loss and pollution of habitat, have decimated sturgeon populations around the world. Among the most significantly affected are sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, which produce the majority of the world's caviar. Beluga sturgeon, the source of beluga caviar, has declined more than 90% in the past twenty years, and is approaching extinction. Other Caspian Sea species, including Russian sturgeon (the source of some osetra caviar) and stellate sturgeon (sevruga) are following a similar trajectory.

Earlier this year, the CITES Animals Committee recommended a halt in caviar exports from the principal Caspian exporting countries (with the exception of Iran) until those countries

1) commit to measures to improve management and enforcement of sturgeon fisheries; and

2) reduce their export quotas by 80% until scientifically valid quotas can be developed.

Last month the CITES Secretariat proposed a suspension of exports of sturgeon and caviar from the affected countries on July 20, 2001, unless they reduce export quotas by 80%, and commit to adopting management and enforcement measures recommended by the Animals Committee.

On Wednesday, June 13, an agreement was reportedly reached between the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on guidelines to assess the status of the stocks, and improve management and enforcement. While the details of this agreement are not available as of this writing, it appears to represent an important step forward. However, by failing to include significant quota reductions, it falls far short of what is needed to protect Caspian Sea sturgeon.

The Animals Committee and the Secretariat have concluded that both management improvements and quota reductions are necessary. The agreement reportedly reached between the Caspian nations addresses only half of this equation. Reducing export quotas by 80% until catch and export quotas based on scientific stock assessments can be developed remains the appropriate course of action for these species, which are seriously imperiled. Such reductions are necessary not only to reduce the pressure on sturgeon, but also to provide incentives to move forward with actual implementation of much needed management and enforcement improvements.

Caviar Emptor, a joint program of three conservation NGOs (the Natural Resources Defense Council, SeaWeb and the Wildlife Conservation Society), strongly supports the recommendations of the Animals Committee and the CITES Secretariat to halt caviar exports from nations that do not agree to both quota cuts and management improvements. In the case of beluga sturgeon, which is on the brink of extinction, a long-term zero quota is necessary in order to reduce the pressure on this fish until management improvements can reverse its dramatic decline. Caviar Emptor also strongly supports international funding for stock assessments, management measures and enforcement improvements.

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