Caspian Caviar Export Quotas Set, but Beluga in Limbo

GENEVA, Switzerland, January 2, 2007 (ENS) - Exports of caviar from three Caspian Sea sturgeon species will be permitted this year by the international organization that controls trade in the luxury delicacy after a year when no Caspian exports were allowed. Exports of beluga, the world’s most valuable caviar, are not yet authorized for 2007.

The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, today published export quotas for Russian, Persian and stellate sturgeon caviar and meat from the Caspian for 2007.

In 2006, the Secretariat did not publish caviar quotas for the Caspian Sea’s sturgeon fisheries because the five countries concerned - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan - did not provide enough information about the sustainability of their sturgeon catch.

"The decision taken by CITES last year not to publish caviar quotas has undoubtedly helped to spur improvements to the monitoring programs and scientific assessments carried out jointly by the five Caspian neighbors," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers.

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CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
"However, ensuring that sturgeon stocks recover to safe levels will take decades of careful fisheries management and an unrelenting struggle against poaching and illegal trade," he said.

It has not been possible to publish quotas for beluga, because the information provided by the five range States is not yet complete, Wijnstekers said.

Tasked by the 169 CITES member states with ensuring that all required criteria and procedures for publishing sturgeon and caviar quotas have been met, the Secretariat has granted the range states until the end of January to provide the missing information before a final decision on beluga caviar is made.

Beluga caviar does not come from the beluga whale, a white marine mammal. Instead, this delicacy is the roe of the great white sturgeon, which is a fish and not a marine mammal.

Caviar Emptor, a campaign of U.S. conservation groups Pew Institute for Ocean Science, SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council, today urged CITES to keep the beluga caviar trade closed for 2007 in order to give this species a chance to recover.

Dr. Ellen Pikitch of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science said, "The most recent data shows that the condition of the highly endangered beluga sturgeon is worsening, and it would be unconscionable for CITES to open the beluga caviar trade."

In a statement today, Caviar Emptor said "no direct evidence" has been provided to back CITES' claims that the Caspian sturgeon range states have made improvements to monitoring programs and scientific assessments.

Instead, the groups said, "dramatic population declines and an illegal caviar trade three to five times greater than the legal trade speaks to the contrary."

"The Caspian stellate sturgeon population is only 10 percent of what it was in 1978, and Russian sturgeon has declined 50 percent during the same period. The 2007 export quotas for Russian sturgeon are 23 percent higher than they were in 2005, the last time quotas were published, despite any evidence that the health of the species has improved," said Caviar Emptor.

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Russian fisherman exults over landing a great white sturgeon. (Photo credit unknown)
But CITES says sturgeon conservation depends on the sale of sturgeon products. "The income earned from the sale of sturgeon products in 2007 should provide both an incentive and the means to pursue the long-term recovery of this commercially and ecologically valuable natural resource," Wijnstekers said today.

The conservationists say exports of Russian beluga caviar should not be allowed under any circumstances. Citing documents submitted by the Russian Federation at a CITES’ policymaking meeting in October 2006 that reveal a 45 percent decline in the beluga sturgeon population between 2004 and 2005, they say the species is in "grave danger" and "should not be commercially exploited."

CITES says the Caspian Sea countries have recognized the decline in sturgeon stocks and have agreed amongst themselves to reduce the combined catch quotas for the sea’s six sturgeon species by an average of 20 percent compared with 2005, with reductions of one third for some species.

The combined quotas for caviar exports are 15 percent lower than for 2005, the last year for which quotas were published, CITES says. Quotas for caviar exports from Persian and stellate sturgeon have been reduced by over 25 percent.

Last year, Caspian export quotas were not set due to what Caviar Emptor says was the Caspian nations’ "failure to take into account the extent of illegal fishing and the lack of a basin-wide sturgeon management plan in the region."

Export quotas were approved in 2006 only for Persian sturgeon caviar from Iran.

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Caviar harvested in Russia's Astrakhan Oblast on the Volga River Delta. (Photo courtesy Eurasia)
Recognizing that sturgeon stocks in the Black Sea and lower Danube River have been seriously depleted, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine have requested zero quotas for 2007.

While Serbia requested a small quota for beluga caviar exports, no quota has been published owing to a lack of agreement amongst the range states.

In the case of the Heilongjiang/Amur River on the Sino-Russian border, a fishery shared by China and Russia, the CITES Secretariat is seeking further clarification of information submitted by the states concerned and has not been able to publish a quota at this stage.

Caviar importers also have an important role to play in sturgeon conservation. Wijnstekers said, "They must ensure that all imports are from legal sources, and they must establish registration systems for their domestic processing and repackaging plants and rules for the labeling of repackaged caviar."

Since April 1, 1998, all sturgeon species have been listed on CITES Appendix II, which allows trade only under permit and with specific labeling requirements.

In 2001, CITES responded to high levels of poaching and illegal trade in the Caspian Sea with a temporary export ban. Annual quotas were agreed for 2002 to 2005 but not for 2006.

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Several varieties of caviar, including beluga caviar, for sale in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Emma Duncan courtesy WWF-Canon)
To have their proposed quotas published, countries with shared sturgeon stocks must agree amongst themselves on catch and export quotas based on scientific surveys of the stocks.

They must also adopt a regional conservation strategy, combat illegal fishing and demonstrate that their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable.

The CITES regime requires caviar and other sturgeon products to be sold during the same calendar year in which the fish are caught. Because caviar is a popular local delicacy in many of these countries, Wijnstekers says they must focus on strengthening their controls over domestic trade in sturgeon.

Reduced supplies of caviar from the wild have encouraged many countries to establish aquaculture facilities for sturgeon, but "in order to preserve incentives for the conservation of wild sturgeon stocks it is important to maintain a catch of these fish at sustainable levels," Wijnstekers says.

The conservationists of Caviar Emptor recommend consumption of farmed caviar purchased from reputable dealers, which they say reduces pressure on wild sturgeon species and frees consumers from worry about the possible illegality of their delicious treat.

"While Caviar Emptor calls upon CITES to keep the beluga caviar trade closed, the good news is that farmed caviar is a wonderful delicacy that consumers can still enjoy," said Dawn Martin, president of SeaWeb. "Consumers who choose farmed caviar this year can do so with a clean conscience knowing that their actions may well be the only hope to relieve pressure on these ancient species."