Protecting Endangered Beluga Sturgeon


(December 6, 2000) "Caviar Emptor: Let the Connoisseur Beware" campaign to protect critically endangered beluga sturgeon launched: In response to the triple threat to sturgeon posed by overfishing, habitat loss and pollution, three leading environmental groups announced a campaign to protect and help restore Caspian Sea sturgeon, specifically the imperiled beluga sturgeon. With the campaign's launch, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and SeaWeb released Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery. The report details the threats facing Caspian Sea sturgeon, particularly beluga, and the steps needed to achieve recovery. The campaign also filed a petition asking the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, which would halt imports of beluga caviar into the United States, the world's largest importer of the delicacy.

(March 2001) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service fails to issue preliminary finding on Caviar Emptor's petition to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species: Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the government has 90 days to issue a preliminary finding and 12 months to decide whether the proposed listing is warranted.

(June 14, 2001) CITES threatens ban on Caspian caviar: Caviar exports from major Caspian Sea nations could be banned depending on the outcome of an international meeting of wildlife trade officials the week of June 18, 2001 in Paris. The region's principal caviar exporting nations 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, officials could enact a ban on exports at the CITES Standing Committee meeting next week.

(June 21, 2001) CITES imposes temporary sturgeon fishing suspension, Caspian states adopt Paris Agreement: CITES and the Caspian states agreed to an action plan called the Paris Agreement that makes progress toward improved management and enforcement of depleted Caspian Sea sturgeon fisheries and places a temporary 6-month suspension through the end of 2001 on sturgeon catches for Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. However, CITES rejected the recommendations of scientists and conservation organizations to impose significant long-term reductions in caviar exports that are needed to help save dwindling populations of sturgeon.

(January 23, 2002) New report documents dramatic decline in Caspian beluga sturgeon: Citing a report released this week that documents the perilous state of beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, three conservation organizations through the Caviar Emptor campaign reiterated their call for an immediate and sustained halt in international trade of caviar from the endangered beluga sturgeon. The survey-- released by the Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), an internationally funded regional organization for environmentally sustainable development -- found only 28 beluga sturgeon in the entire survey region, of which 85 percent were immature.

(March 7, 2002) CITES resumes Caspian caviar trade: The announcement by the CITES Secretariat office that the Caspian Sea states could resume the caviar trade has been met with alarm by scientists and conservation organizations seeking to restore the beluga sturgeon, which is on the brink of extinction. The three conservation organizations of Caviar Emptor will urge CITES officials to reconsider approval of beluga caviar trade at the CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva next week.

(March 15, 2002) Caviar Emptor decries reopening of beluga caviar trade: This week at the CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva, the Caviar Emptor coalition of Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb asked trade officials to reconsider their approval of the resumption of the beluga caviar trade. Today, it is evident that CITES will allow the beluga caviar trade to resume, despite vehement objections from scientists and environmental organizations. The CITES Secretariat announced its intention to resume the Caspian caviar trade more than a week ago, but it has not provided a rationale to justify its decision nor any scientific evidence to support its estimates of beluga sturgeon numbers in the Caspian Sea. Environmentalists are alarmed because overwhelming scientific evidence collected over the past two decades shows that beluga sturgeon are on the brink of extinction and cannot support any level of fishing or trade, now or in the foreseeable future.

(April 25, 2002) NRDC sues U.S. government for failure to protect endangered beluga sturgeon: The Natural Resources Defense Council today filed suit in federal district court in Manhattan against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its failure to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. "The government is dragging its feet on a critical conservation issue," said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney at NRDC. "Once again, the environmental community has had to sue the government to get it to do its job." Under the Endangered Species Act, the government has 90 days to issue a preliminary finding and 12 months to decide whether the proposed listing is warranted. To date, the government has failed to issue either.

(May 2002) Caviar Emptor research trip to Russia: Dr. Ellen Pikitch of Wildlife Conservation Society and Shannon Crownover of SeaWeb traveled to Moscow, Volgograd and Astrakhan to meet with Russian sturgeon scientists, fishermen, hatchery managers and enforcement officials to obtain their views on the most critical issues facing Caspian sturgeon of the Volga River. The river was traditionally home to the majority of the sturgeon's spawning grounds in the Caspian basin, but the construction of the Volgograd Dam in 1960 made those vital habitat areas inaccessible to the beluga sturgeon, which travels 600 to 800 kilometers upriver to lay its eggs. Several fishermen said they had not seen a beluga sturgeon in the last few years and advocated at least a five-year moratorium. Additional information gathered on this research trip is contributing to Caviar Emptor's development of a recovery plan for the species.

(June 20, 2002) Deadline for Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to take sturgeon conservation actions outlined in 2001 CITES Paris Agreement: By this date, four of five Caspian states were to have made progress on sturgeon conservation efforts including: developed a coordinated sturgeon management plan; conducted a comprehensive survey of sturgeon stocks; requested Interpol to conduct an analysis of illegal trade in sturgeons; established a long-term stock survey program; requested FAO advice on fishery management; significantly increased efforts to combat illegal harvesting and trade and regulated domestic trade; made samples available for DNA testing and established priorities for further research on the identification of sturgeon stocks; submitted a proposal to donors for rehabilitation of stocks and hatcheries, and for support of stock assessments and identification efforts; and implemented a caviar labeling system for exports. The CITES Secretariat was charged with verifying whether these accomplishments had been made. If not, the CITES Standing Committee said they would recommend a suspension of international trade in caviar from these countries. Several months after the June 20, 2002 deadline, the CITES Secretariat had yet to announce the Caspian states' progress made on the above initiatives, and sturgeon fishing and caviar trade continued through the Fall 2002 season.

(July 31, 2002) U.S. takes first step toward protecting beluga sturgeon: Conservation organizations applauded the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's proposal to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Service issued its proposal today, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council to compel the Service to act on a petition to protect beluga sturgeon filed in December 2000 by the Caviar Emptor campaign of NRDC, Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb. The Service opened a 90-day period for the public to provide comments on its proposed listing of beluga sturgeon as an endangered species.

(October 2002) Caviar Emptor research trips to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan: Dr. Ellen Pikitch of Wildlife Conservation Society participated in a Caspian Sea environment meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, and met with local officials regarding the sturgeon fishery. Azerbaijan's Minister of Ecology, Gussein Bagirov, stated his support of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services' proposal to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species. The same month, Shannon Crownover of SeaWeb traveled to Atyrau, Kazakhstan on the Ural River and conducted in-depth interviews of Kazakh scientists, fishermen and government officials. All were concerned about the decline in sturgeon populations and eager for international assistance in remedying the problem. Information gathered on these research trips is contributing to Caviar Emptor's development of a recovery plan for the species.

(October 22, 2002) CITES halts beluga caviar exports: International trade officials froze exports of beluga caviar from all five Caspian states until further notice for the second time in little over a year. The CITES Secretariat cited the lack of effective coordinated management of beluga sturgeon catches and exports.

(October 28, 2002) Support builds for U.S. protection of beluga sturgeon: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's proposal to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species has been met with support from Azerbaijan - a Caspian Sea nation - as well as by more than 50 scientists, 200 chefs and thousands of individuals in the United States and beyond.

(October 29, 2002) Caviar Emptor files comments with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: As the public comment period officially ended, Caviar Emptor filed information in support of the proposed endangered species listing for beluga sturgeon. Because the Service can take up to a year to make a decision, the conservation organizations asked it to enact an emergency listing for the species. Caviar Emptor's comments to the Service also included a scientific review of the Caspian states' process for setting 2002 sturgeon catch and export quotas. In the review, which Caviar Emptor submitted simultaneously to the CITES Secretariat, marine biologists Dr. Ellen Pikitch and Liz Lauck of Wildlife Conservation Society pointed out numerous flaws in the quota-setting process, stating that it is "plagued by inadequate description and justification of methodologies used, a lack of statistical rigor, and a failure to describe the scientific uncertainty associated with various estimates." One of the major problems revealed is the Caspian states' overestimation of beluga sturgeon abundance by a factor of 25, which has resulted in an unsustainable level of fishing.

(November 6, 2002) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service extends beluga comment period: Regarding the U.S. government's proposal to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, today on the Federal Register the Fish & Wildlife Service announced that it would hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, December 5, 2002, and would extend the comment period through Saturday, December 28, 2002.

(November 8, 2002) CITES lifts ban on beluga caviar exports: CITES lifted its ban on international trade of beluga caviar just three weeks after the ban was imposed. It previously had cited a lack of effective coordinated management of beluga sturgeon catches and exports. Upon reopening the trade, CITES did not provide detailed justification for how the coordination was achieved. Caviar Emptor stated its disappointment that the trade ban was lifted so soon. The conservationists said the short-term approach being used by international officials would not stem the precipitous decline of slow-maturing beluga sturgeon.

(December 5, 2002) Public hearing on proposal to list beluga sturgeon as endangered: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hosted a public hearing for its proposal to list beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act at its facility in Arlington, VA. Caviar Emptor testified at the hearing, offering scientific evidence that shows beluga sturgeon are on the brink of extinction. The program said that a U.S. Endangered Species listing would provide the long-term protection necessary to help restore beluga sturgeon. The Fish & Wildlife Service must make a decision by July 31, 2003, but Caviar Emptor requested that the Service enact an emergency listing before the spring 2003 fishing season.

(December 28, 2002) U.S. comment period closes: The public comment period opened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its proposal to list beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act closed. The proposal has been met with support from Azerbaijan - a Caspian Sea nation - as well as by more than 50 scientists, 200 chefs and thousands of individuals in the United States and beyond.

(December 31, 2002) Caspian states' deadline to propose 2003 sturgeon catch and export quotas to the CITES Secretariat: The CITES Secretariat is tasked with approving 2003 sturgeon catch and export quotas submitted by Caspian states by the end of the year, but it is unclear whether outside expertise will be sought in analyzing whether the quotas are sustainable. Caviar Emptor continues to urge a zero quota for beluga sturgeon, whose population has declined by more than 90 percent in the past 20 years.

(January 2003) Caviar Emptor opens field office in Kazakhstan: The Wildlife Conservation Society supports the opening of a Caviar Emptor office in Kazakhstan to undertake sturgeon research and recovery efforts in partnership with the government's science institute. Shannon Crownover of SeaWeb moves to the Caspian state to serve as the campaign's field manager. Kazakhstan was chosen as the major focus of Caviar Emptor's regional recovery efforts due to its Ural River, which is the only free-flowing river in the Caspian basin and may be the last place where beluga sturgeon reproduce in the wild.

(June-July 2003) WCS and SeaWeb conduct training for Kazakh fisheries officials: Through an unprecedented American and Kazakh partnership, WCS and SeaWeb conducted a program to train sturgeon hatchery and fisheries scientists on using tags for monitoring sturgeon populations. Classroom sessions, training manuals and an experimental, hands-on tagging workshop were provided. Nearly 300 beluga fingerlings and 4 adult beluga were tagged and released into the Caspian Sea. The training program will serve as the foundation for future pilot projects as Caviar Emptor seeks to help Kazakhstan develop a comprehensive sturgeon monitoring program.

(July 2, 2003) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service re-opens public comment period on beluga and extends deadline for decision-making: Caviar Emptor expressed its dismay at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's announcement that it would again delay its decision on whether to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was to have made a final decision by July 31, but it postponed the decision and re-opened a public comment period until September 2 in order to obtain more data on beluga sturgeon populations.

(September 2, 2003) Second and final U.S. comment period on proposed beluga listing closes

(September 8, 2003) CITES claims beluga recovery, sparking controversy: Caviar Emptor challenged the 2003 beluga export quotas approved by CITES as unsustainable. The conservationists are particularly concerned by CITES Secretariat's claims that the beluga sturgeon population has recovered. Caviar Emptor and regional scientists contend that this is not consistent with the most recent data. Media organizations around the world - including New Scientist, Moscow Times, and London Independent - highlight flaws in the CITES data.

(October 1, 2003) Caviar Emptor's WCS partnership transfers to the University of Miami's new Pew Institute for Ocean Science: Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Caviar Emptor's lead scientist and sturgeon specialist, accepted a professorship with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and will serve as the executive director of the new Pew Institute for Ocean Science housed at the University. Caviar Emptor thanks the leadership and staff of WCS for its unparalleled commitment to sturgeon conservation and the campaign during the last three years.

(November-December 2003) "Caviar Nouveau" unites chefs across the nation: Renowned chefs in 15 cities across the nation declare beluga caviar extinct from their holiday menus and instead offer new, great tasting American caviars from farmed sturgeon, paddlefish, trout and other eco-friendly choices. Chef Rick Moonen of "rm" in New York City launched the Caviar Nouveau holiday promotion with an American caviar tasting at his restaurant in November. Chef Nora Pouillon published an opinion-editorial in support of listing beluga sturgeon as an endangered species in the Washington Post on New Year's Eve.

(December 31, 2003) Paris Agreement deadline: Today is the final deadline for Caspian states to meet the sturgeon conservation requirements set forth in the 2001 Paris Agreement. CITES granted the states a one-year extension from the original deadline of December 31, 2002, but to date, no progress report has been issued by CITES or the Caspian states on whether the requirements have been met.

(January 31, 2004) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decision due on proposed endangered species listing: The U.S. government is required to announce its final decision by January 31, 2004, on whether to protect beluga sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. A listing as endangered would result in a ban on beluga caviar imports to the United States, the world's largest importer of the delicacy. The process to list beluga under the Act was initiated when the Caviar Emptor campaign organizations submitted a petition to the Fish & Wildlife Service in December 2000. The campaign and scientists around the world believe that such a listing would significantly reduce pressure on the fish, giving it the time it needs to start the road to recovery.

(April 20, 2004) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists beluga sturgeon as a “threatened species”: The U.S. government officially declares that beluga sturgeon is “threatened with extinction” as defined by the Endangered Species Act. Under normal circumstances, this listing would lead directly to a ban on the import of beluga caviar into the United States. However, the Fish & Wildlife Service has delayed the ban, opting instead for a “special ruling,” a process that could take six months and could range from a complete ban on beluga caviar imports to no new trade restrictions. Caviar Emptor applauds this first official recognition of beluga as a species headed to extinction, but criticizes the delay in imposing trade restrictions because the latest data illustrates that the beluga population is collapsing in the Caspian Sea and needs immediate relief.

(June 29, 2004) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s draft special rule issued: The U.S. government issues a draft special rule that allows continued importation of beluga caviar for at least nine months and thereafter if certain conditions are met. The proposed special rule is open for public comment until July 29, 2004. Caviar Emptor and other groups immediately register the need for a trade ban on beluga caviar and reiterate their call for consumers to choose alternative caviars.

(September 1, 2004) Wildlife Officials Shut Down Caviar Trade: CITES confirms a halt to the global trade of most caviars, including prized beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea’s imperiled beluga sturgeon. CITES has refused to approve Caspian caviar export quotas for 2004 because Caspian nations are in violation of an international sturgeon conservation agreement that requires them to reach consensus on the division of basin-wide quotas and to take illegal fishing into consideration when determining those numbers. CITES states that the freeze on exports should remain in place until the states have complied with the agreement. Caviar Emptor strongly supports CITES’ halt of the Caspian caviar trade and recommends it be extended long term until beluga sturgeon show signs of recovery.

(September 7, 2004) CITES approves Black Sea caviar export quotas; Caspian trade remains closed: CITES approved 2004 caviar export quotas for the Black Sea, which represents a very small portion of the global caviar trade (in 2003, tentative trade figures of UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Center show that only 6 percent of the world’s beluga caviar came from the Black Sea).

(October 7, 2004) CITES Allows Caspian Caviar Trade to Resume Despite Threatened Status of Sturgeon: CITES reversed its halt of the 2004 Caspian caviar trade despite environmentalists’ concerns about the downward spiral of beluga sturgeon and rampant illegal fishing. Even though CITES orders a reduction in Caspian caviar exports as compared to 2003, the move is largely symbolic because the 2004 fishing season has already concluded.

(October 21, 2004) Beluga sturgeon’s threatened listing effective today, but FWS allows trade: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s designation of beluga sturgeon as a species “threatened with extinction” becomes effective today. However, the U.S. government delays protection for the fish by issuing an interim rule that allows continued importation of beluga caviar until a final rule can be issued in January 2005.  Caviar Emptor states its disappointment and reiterates its view that an immediate and long-term trade ban is needed to save the beluga sturgeon.

(December 2004) Seafood Greetings Nationwide Promotion: Several of the nation’s top restaurants have teamed up with Seafood Choices Alliance and Caviar Emptor to celebrate Seafood Greetings, a holiday collection of luxurious, great-tasting seafood recipes that are good for us and the oceans.  Participating restaurants in 14 U.S. cities are promoting ocean-friendly choices this holiday season. The choices include American caviars, spot prawns, stone crabs, oysters, bay scallops and Alaskan Winter King salmon.  
(January 31, 2005) Deadline for U.S. Decision on Beluga Caviar Imports: Today is the deadline for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to make a final decision on the protections it will offer beluga sturgeon, which it listed as a threatened species in 2004.  An all-out ban or restrictions on U.S. imports of beluga caviar are possible.

(March 3, 2005) U.S. Government Allows Import of Beluga Caviar: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it would deny immediate protection to imperiled beluga sturgeon and instead would allow beluga caviar imports to continue. Environmentalists and marine scientists decried the announcement, citing evidence of the fish's precipitous decline in recent years. Caviar Emptor - a coalition of SeaWeb, Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science - said it had expected the Service to significantly restrict or ban beluga caviar imports after it declared beluga sturgeon “threatened with extinction” last year. The Service is requiring beluga caviar exporters to submit documentation of sturgeon management plans and more in 6 months’ time, or exporting countries may face a ban.

(September 3, 2005) U.S. FWS Deadline for Beluga Caviar Exporters to Produce Evidence of Sturgeon Management Plans or Face Ban on Trade with United States

(September 7, 2005) Caspian nations ignore rules of U.S. Endangered Species Act: Caspian nations are facing a ban on exports of beluga caviar to the United States, their biggest customer, after failing to submit evidence of improved beluga sturgeon conservation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by yesterday’s deadline. The Service is in the process of making the ban official.

(September 22, 2005) First global review sees bleak future for sturgeon; bold measures can save endangered fish: Sturgeon – producers of the highly prized black caviar, one of the most valuable wildlife commodities on earth – are in worldwide crisis, according to the most comprehensive study to date on the world’s sturgeon fisheries published today in the journal Fish and Fisheries. Caviar Emptor scientists Drs. Ellen Pikitch and Phaedra Doukakis of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science were co-lead authors on the study.

(September 29, 2005) U.S. Bans Beluga Caviar: The United States today banned beluga caviar imports from Caspian Sea nations after they failed to provide evidence of improved conservation plans for beluga sturgeon, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared a threatened species last year. Caviar Emptor said the ban will provide much-needed relief for the fish and applauded the government’s action. Dr. Ellen Pikitch, professor and director of the Pew Institute, said, “The beluga sturgeon, one of the most valuable and most threatened fishes in the world, greatly deserves this chance for survival, but it will be a long road to recovery.” Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for NRDC, added, “The U.S. has set an important example for the rest of the world to follow by banning beluga caviar imports from nations that failed to take effective action to protect beluga sturgeon from extinction.” Dawn Martin, executive director of SeaWeb, said consumers still have a role to play since some Black Sea nations may be allowed to export: “Because a small amount of beluga caviar may remain on the market, we continue to urge consumers to instead choose exquisite farmed American caviars, which are a better choice for the environment.”

October 2005 – US Bans Black Sea Beluga Caviar: The FWS extends the reach of its protective measures for the Caspian Sea by announcing a ban on Black Sea beluga caviar, citing similar reasons which led them to shut down the Caspian beluga fishery one month before. There is now complete protection for the beluga sturgeon within the United States, formerly the world’s largest consumer of the imperilled fish eggs.

January 2006 – CITES bans international trade in caviar: The international caviar trade is shut down by CITES, who cite a failure by the Caspian nations to take into account the illegal trade when setting their export quotas, as well as the absence of a internationally accepted, basin-wide management plan and conservation strategy. Conservationists and scientists around the world applaud the bold move and encourage CITES to maintain the ban long-term to allow sturgeon to recover.

April 2006 – Romania bans sturgeon fishing for 10 years: Citing concerns about continued declines in sturgeon populations, Romania, a top five exporter of beluga caviar, announces a ban on all commercial sturgeon fishing for the next 10 years,. Environmentalists and scientists applaud the decision and encourage other Caspian and Black sea nations to do the same, especially for the endangered beluga sturgeon.

January 2007 – CITES opens sevruga and oesetra trade; conservationists decry move Despite evidence from the Caspian nations showing declining sevruga and oesetra sturgeon populations, CITES reopens the trade. Caviar Emptor requests from CITES the information submitted by the range states to show populations could sustain trade, but were denied. Twenty-three scientists and over 160 conservationists and food industry professionals sign a petition asking CITES to keep the beluga trade closed.

February 2007 – CITES opens beluga caviar trade despite international objection: One month after announcing the opening of the international trade for oesetra and sevruga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, CITES opens the beluga caviar trade, despite objections from conservationists, scientists and industry professionals that populations cannot sustain trade. CITES admits downward population trends and says the responsibility of sustainable quotas lies with the Animals Committee. Caviar Emptor will attend the 14 th Conference of Parties to press for increased trade protection by strengthening Resolution 12.7.

June 2007 At the triennial CITES Conference of the Parties meeting, delegates declined emergency procedures to curb trade of caviar from the rare beluga sturgeon, but strengthened scientific oversight of the wild caviar trade in general. Scientists and conservationists attending the conference say the survival of overfished wild sturgeons now depends on the vigilance of importing nations, who have been granted more oversight rights to question exporting countries on the sustainability of the caviar they produce.


For interviews with spokespeople, please contact Julia Roberson at [email protected]. For more information and for a complete report on the decline of Caspian Sea sturgeon, see


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