International trade of caviar and other sturgeon products banned.

caviar.jpg Credit: Bill Reese, courtesy of Caviar Emptor

What is black, valuable, available in only limited quantities, and the subject of vigorous, sometimes violent, global trade?  No, not oil, but that other (sometimes) black gold—caviar.

International trade in caviar and other sturgeon products became illegal Tuesday, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) declined to publish 2006 export quotas for these products.

“Countries wishing to export sturgeon products from shared stocks must demonstrate that their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable,” said CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers in a press release.

Caviar Emptor—a coalition of the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science, SeaWeb (an initiative to raise public awareness of ocean life) and the Natural Resources Defense Council—praised the decision by CITES.

“The ban is good news for sturgeon that are on the brink of extinction, especially the Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon, which has lost 90% of its population in just 20 years due to overfishing for beluga caviar,” reads a statement by the conservation coalition, ”

Caviar—the unfertilized eggs of female sturgeon and paddlefish—retails at $2,400 to $7,150 per kg ($1,090 to $3,250 per lb). Ninety percent of the world’s caviar is exported from countries bordering the Caspian Sea: Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, there has been little enforcement of fishing regulations in the region. As a result, the illegal trade in caviar has flourished. The CITES decision to halt legal trade in caviar could make illegal trade even more lucrative. The black market price for caviar is already 10 times the legal one.

“Illegal fishing remains a problem and that is a problem that will have to be addressed,” said Linda Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Still, Speer is hopeful that eliminating legal trade will significantly help the endangered sturgeon. 

“The reality is the fish populations are so overfished and so depleted that any pressure on them can’t be sustained,” she said. “Eliminating the legal trade takes some of the pressure off.”

The depletion of Caspian Sea sturgeon stocks has caused the caviar industry to look for new sources. In recent years, aquaculture entrepreneurs have begun farming sturgeon. Caviar from farmed fish has received favorable attention from gastronomes worldwide.

“The escalating price and declining quality of wild caviar, particularly from the Caspian, has led some chefs to make the switch already to farmed varieties here in the United States,” Speer said.

The collapse of the Caspian fishery has also caused caviar hunters to turn their attention to the shovel-nosed sturgeon of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. 

Craig Gemming, a fisheries biologist from the Missouri Department of Conservation, worries the CITES decision will have negative consequences for his region.

“We believe it’s going to put increased pressure on the shovel-nosed sturgeon fishery here in the Midwest” Gemming said.

From 1998 to 2001, harvest of shovel-nosed sturgeon in the Mississippi increased 1,000%.  Over the same period, catch rates plummeted from 22 to 2.6 fish per day. Gemming said shovel-nosed sturgeons aren’t the only ones suddenly under seige. Other varieties—such as the pallid sturgeon, federally listed as an endangered species—are also in higher demand.

“We’re also seeing some of our pallid sturgeon and lake sturgeon being taken inadvertently or on purpose by some unscrupulous commercial fishermen just because commercial prices are so high,” said Gemming.

Missouri has enacted regulations to manage the fishery of shovel-nosed sturgeon in a sustainable way.  Fishermen may only keep fish between 60 and 76 cm (24 to 30 in) in length, and fishing without a permit is illegal.

The Caviar Emptor coalition believes nations bordering the Caspian Sea should be following Missouri’s lead.

“Caspian nations must develop a recovery plan for sturgeon if the species is to be saved,” they warned in their statement.

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Originally published January 5, 2006

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