Executive Summary

Caviar. The very word evokes glamorous lifestyles, exotic travel and glittering festivities. Yet the world's source of this luxury item, the sturgeon, is in grave danger. Sturgeon have survived since the days the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The question now is whether these "living fossils" can survive the relentless fishing pressure, pollution and habitat destruction that have brought many species of sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Today, the 27 species of sturgeon and their close relatives, paddlefish, are in sharp decline, and those living in the Caspian Sea, the cradle of world caviar production, are in crisis. This report outlines the status of Caspian Sea sturgeon and recommends actions needed to protect these imperiled fish.

Sturgeon are indeed remarkable fish. Clad in bony plates and equipped with broad snouts, some species of sturgeon live to be more than 100 years old and can grow up to 2,500 pounds and 15 feet-long. Like humans, many sturgeon species reproduce relatively late in life; some do not reach sexual maturity until the ages of 15 to 25. A single sturgeon can produce hundreds of pounds of roe, though the very largest fish are extremely rare today, following decades of overfishing. Sturgeon live in rivers, coastal marine waters and lakes in the Northern Hemisphere, and feed on bottom dwelling organisms such as worms, mollusks, small fish, shrimp and insect larvae. Sturgeon face six major problems:

Overharvesting: Sturgeon are the principal source of one of the world's most expensive and sought-after luxury goods -- caviar. The fish eggs, or roe, are collected from female sturgeon after they have been caught and killed. The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal fishing, or poaching, around the world.

Illegal trade: Illegal trade of sturgeon and caviar exacerbates conservation problems. Sturgeon products, particularly caviar, are compact, easy to conceal, and extremely valuable. A number of sturgeon-producing countries, most notably Russia, have experienced political turmoil over the past decade; as a result, black markets have flourished at the same time fishery management and enforcement programs have collapsed.

Life history characteristics: Sturgeon reproduce more slowly than other fish. They can take between six and 25 years to reach sexual maturity, and females of many sturgeon species reproduce once every three to four years. Therefore, sturgeon are vulnerable to overfishing and unable to recover quickly. In fact, depleted sturgeon populations may take a century or more to recover. In addition, their predictable migration patterns and bottom-feeding habits make them relatively easy prey for fishermen, who kill the fish to collect the roe.

Lack of Effective Management: Many sturgeon and paddlefish migrate through the waters of different states and countries, often resulting in a patchwork of catch levels, fishing seasons, size limits and other management measures. Many of the world's most imperiled sturgeon populations live in politically and economically unstable countries, further hampering effective management.

Loss of habitat: Sturgeon migrate up rivers to spawn. Dam construction, diversion of river water for irrigation and other purposes, and siltation of spawning and rearing habitats have nearly eliminated spawning runs on many large river systems used by sturgeon. Dams also alter river flow patterns, disrupting the natural signals that sturgeon rely on in their spawning migrations. Fish "ladders," intended to help fish surmount dams, generally have been ineffective for sturgeon.

Pollution: Pollutants from urban and agricultural runoff and industrial discharges have been linked to significant reproductive and other abnormalities in sturgeon, and to large fish kills.

Some U.S. and international measures are in place to protect sturgeon. Of the eight species of sturgeon and one species of paddlefish found in the United States, five species or subspecies are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Internationally, all sturgeon species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), two under Appendix I (under which international commercial trade is prohibited) and the rest under Appendix II (under which international trade is allowed only with a CITES permit from the management agency of the exporting nation).

These measures are not enough, particularly for Caspian Sea sturgeon, which supply most of the world's caviar. Beluga sturgeon, the source of beluga caviar, is so depleted that it may no longer be reproducing naturally in the Caspian Sea region. To prevent extinction of this ancient fish and to prevent other sturgeon species from suffering the same fate, the Caviar Emptor Campaign, launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb, has called for:

  • An international prohibition on trade in beluga caviar;
  • Listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act;
  • Greater international funding for efforts to protect and restore Caspian Sea sturgeon;
  • Stronger U.S enforcement of international trade restrictions on caviar imports;
  • Support for environmentally sound aquaculture as an alternative to wild sturgeon caviar;
  • Stronger state management of U.S. sturgeon species.

The campaign further recommends that consumers reduce their consumption of caviar and avoid beluga caviar altogether. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include "aquacultured" caviar, North Star Caviar and Yellowstone Caviar.

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