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Beluga Caviar Trade Undecided for 2007

Caspian nations given additional month to submit information; scientists cite further evidence of sturgeon’s decline
January 01, 2007

Contact:
Julia Roberson +1.828.734.6741
jroberson@seaweb.org

Shannon Crownover +1.808.391.0281
shannon@seaweb.org

(January 2, 2007) The Caspian nations have until the end of January to submit information regarding beluga sturgeon caviar quotas, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) announced today.

CITES did not publish beluga caviar quotas for Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan and cited the Caspian nations’ lack of sufficient information. The countries were required to submit information to CITES by November 31, 2006. Last year quotas were only approved for Persian sturgeon caviar from Iran, due to 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.

The beluga sturgeon is the source of the world’s most valuable caviar and has seen its population plummet by 90 percent over the past two decades due to overfishing, poaching, pollution and habitat destruction. Documents submitted by the Russian Federation at a CITES’ policymaking meeting in October 2006 reveal a 45 percent decline in the beluga sturgeon population between 2004 and 2005, illustrating the species is in grave danger and should not be commercially exploited.

Although other Caspian sturgeon species are also in danger, CITES approved quotas for Russian, Persian and stellate sturgeon, saying last year’s ban helped “spur improvements to the monitoring programs and scientific assessments” of the sturgeon populations. No direct evidence of these improvements has been provided, whilst 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.

According to CITES, most Black Sea countries requested zero quotas for all sturgeon species to help populations recover. In April 2006, Romania banned sturgeon fishing for 10 years. Similar long-term recovery plans are needed in the Caspian Sea to prevent extinction.

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. It is encouraging that most Black Sea nations are taking sturgeon conservation seriously by requesting zero quotas to allow recovery. We urge the Caspian nations to do the same.”

Caviar Emptor – a campaign of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council –urges CITES to keep the beluga caviar trade closed for 2007 in order to give this species a chance to recover. For other Caspian Sea sturgeon species, the group noted that trade quotas should only be approved based on evidence of healthy populations and responsible management, factors not apparent in any available information.

While some wild Caspian caviar will be on the market this year, there are high-quality, environmentally friendly alternatives available such as farmed caviar produced from sturgeon and other species in the United States and Europe. Farmed caviar purchased from reputable dealers also frees consumers from worry about the possible illegality of the product, which is a major concern when purchasing wild caviar.

“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 M. Martin, President of SeaWeb. “Consumers who choose farmed caviar this year can do so with a clean conscience knowing that there actions may well be the only hope to relieve pressure on these ancient species.”

In June 2007, CITES will hold its Conference of the Parties’ meeting at The Hague, The Netherlands. Caviar Emptor will urge CITES to support resolutions that provide long-term protection to Caspian sturgeon species, and urge the range states to implement a basin-wide sturgeon recovery and management plan. For the most imperiled species, such as the beluga, a long-term trade ban and fishing moratorium may be its only chance at survival.

For interviews with scientists, conservationists, or food industry spokespeople, please contact Julia Roberson at +1.828.734.6741 (after January 8, 2007 +33.6.76.51.48.08), jroberson@seaweb.org or Shannon Crownover at +1.808.391.0281, shannon@seaweb.org. For more information, see www.caviaremptor.org.

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