Caviar Black Market Threatens Sturgeons With Extinction

GLAND, Switzerland, December 15, 2005 (ENS) - From private individuals selling jars of caviar at open air market stalls to organized caviar smuggling operations, with paid couriers picking up pre-packed suitcases for delivery to customers, a booming black market in caviar across Europe is pushing many sturgeon species in Asia and Europe towards extinction.

WWF, the global conservation organization, and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network released a report today on the illicit caviar trade as an incentive to implement a pending universal caviar labeling system which identifies the origin of the prized luxury food that can sell for as much as US$7,000 per kilogram.

“European governments have been delaying implementation of a universal caviar labeling system which identifies the origin of the so-called 'black gold' and will help to combat the thriving illegal trade,” said Stephanie Theile, TRAFFIC’s Europe program coordinator.

Many sturgeon populations are seriously depleted as a result of illegal fishing and trade, the report finds. WWF and TRAFFIC say that besides the illegal caviar in international trade, a great deal of illegally harvested caviar is also consumed in the countries of origin, such as the Russian Federation.

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Fisherman pulls a sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. (Photo courtesy Dusharm.com)
All 27 sturgeon species were listed in 1998 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Since then international trade in caviar and other sturgeon products from all but two of the species can only take place under a system of permits.

Those two sturgeon species - Shortnose sturgeon, Acipenser brevirostrum, and Baltic sturgeon, Acipenser sturio - are so depleted that they are listed in CITES Appendix I under which international trade is strictly prohibited.

“The situation in the Caspian Sea is of great concern,” said David Morgan, head of the scientific support unit at CITES. “As most of the world’s caviar is harvested there, we are particularly concerned over the impact of unsustainable harvesting and illegal trade on wild sturgeon populations. There is every indication that populations are going down.”

Under the CITES caviar labeling system, all caviar products would incorporate non-reusable labels sealing the container and containing information such as the source of the caviar, its country of origin or re-packaging, the code of the processing plant or CITES permit numbers. Governments agreed to implement the labeling system by January 2004.

The system of labels would apply not only to exported and re-exported caviar shipments, but also to all caviar tins, jars and other primary containers sold to the public in retail outlets in domestic markets.

But governments in Western Europe have been slow to meet these requirements, making it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal caviar.

“We hope that by this time next year, all consumers in Europe can be confident that the caviar they buy is legally obtained and traded, and they are not contributing to an illegal trade that is driving species to extinction," Theile said.

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To augment the supply of wild caviar, sturgeons are grown on fish farms many countries. Here a worker removes the roe from a female sturgeon at a British Columbia fish farm. (Photo courtesy Target Marine)
Based on data reported by EU Member States and Switzerland, almost 12,000 kilograms (12 metric tons) of illegal caviar were seized by European authorities between 2000 and 2005.

Germany topped the list with 2,224 kg, followed by Switzerland with 2,067 kg, the Netherlands with 1,920 kg, Poland with 1,841 kg, and the UK with 1,587 kg.

WWF and TRAFFIC researchers found that trucks or vans are often used to bring caviar shipments into Western Europe. Investigations by German Customs in March 2005 revealed that two businessmen were responsible for smuggling more than 1.4 metric tons of caviar into the European Union market in a single year.

“We fear that quantities of illegal caviar are much higher than official statistics due to the covert nature of the trade,” said Theile.

A new EU regulation implementing the caviar labeling system is set to come in force in early 2006. WWF and TRAFFIC say that once the regulation is in place, everybody from caviar importers and exporters, to wholesalers and retailers in Europe must be made aware of the new labeling requirements.

Meanwhile, the conservationists are asking that people who want to eat caviar this holiday season ensure their pleasure does not contribute to the extinction of these fish species.

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The world legal caviar trade amounts to about US$100 annually. (Photo courtesy Imperial Caspian)
“With end of year celebrations approaching in many parts of the world, we urge consumers to be vigilant and only purchase caviar from well-established retail businesses and to respect the legal limit of 250 grams,” said Gerald Dick with WWF's Global Species Programme.

Sturgeons can live for over 40 years, but only reach sexual maturity between six and 25 years of age. And, as females do not necessarily spawn every year, it makes this species particularly vulnerable to overharvesting.

“Overfishing for caviar production is a prime culprit for the collapse of sturgeon populations,” said Dr. Sue Lieberman, director of WWF’s Global Species Programme. “But habitat loss, disruption of migration routes caused by dams, pollution and poor enforcement have also collectively decimated many sturgeon populations.”

“Sturgeons are a perfect indicator of the ecological status of rivers,” said Dr. Lieberman “If the rivers are clean, the sturgeons will thrive. Healthy rivers and healthy fish will benefit local people in many diverse ways.”

About 60 percent of the caviar that is traded legally each year is imported by western European countries. Most of the caviar in the European market comes from Iran and the Russian Federation, the world’s largest exporters.

It is estimated that the legal caviar trade is worth some US$100 million annually - making it one of the world’s most valuable wildlife resources. Because retail prices of illegal caviar vary widely from country to country, WWF and TRAFFIC say it is difficult to estimate the value of the illegal trade.