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Beluga Caviar Trade Resumed Despite International Objection

February 05, 2007

Contact:
Julia Roberson: +1.828.734.6741
jroberson@seaweb.org

Shannon Crownover: +1.808.391.0281
shannon@seaweb.org

Beluga sturgeon in steep decline; Scientists worry about survival.

The international community expressed alarm today as the wild beluga caviar trade was reopened despite evidence of the beluga sturgeon’s downward spiral in the Caspian Sea. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) today approved beluga caviar export quotas for Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia, after shutting down trade last year because of concerns about overfishing, poaching and ineffective management.

The most recent range state survey shows a 45 percent decline in the Caspian beluga sturgeon population from 2004 to 2005. The Black Sea states, which in 2005 were granted nearly half of the total 8.5 ton export quota for beluga caviar, have decided not to export any wild caviar this year because sturgeon have been “seriously depleted.”

Kazakhstan was granted the largest export quota, at 1.7 tons, despite its leading fish processing company being convicted in January of poaching over 4.6 tons of caviar in 2006. The illegal caviar market is estimated to be at least 3-5 times greater than the legal trade, and one of the main factors threatening the sturgeon’s survival.

Dr. Ellen Pikitch, co-founder of Caviar Emptor and executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science said, “This is irresponsible behavior by international trade officials. With beluga sturgeon, we have a species on the brink of extinction that has lost more than 90 percent of its population in recent years. It’s a death sentence to allow trade of its precious eggs to resume.”

In January, nearly 100 seafood industry professionals, 23 renowned marine scientists, and conservationists from more than 50 nonprofit organizations around the world delivered personal letters or signed petitions to CITES urging the ban on beluga caviar continue. The petition from seafood industry professionals said, “This ban is necessary until beluga sturgeon show signs of recovery,” and a group letter from scientists said, “Beluga populations continue to dwindle and only a long-term reprieve from fishing will serve to avert extinction.”

Chef Rick Moonen of rm seafood, who joined five other American chefs in a letter to CITES, is one of many who removed Caspian caviar from his menu because of overfishing. “I’m deeply saddened that the beluga’s 200-million-year existence may soon come to an end,” said Moonen after hearing that trade had opened. “CITES wasted this chance to save an ancient and truly remarkable fish, so now I call on seafood professionals around the globe to boycott beluga caviar and try farmed caviar instead. It may be the only hope this fish has for survival.”

Overfishing, rampant poaching, habitat destruction and pollution have pushed sturgeon to the brink of extinction. Scientists from the Caspian region, including the head of the International Sturgeon Research Institute, have been quoted as saying if action is not taken, the Caspian Sea sturgeon species could be extinct in 14 years.

Caviar Emptor – a campaign of SeaWeb, the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, and the Natural Resources Defense Council – has been calling for long-term trade protection for beluga sturgeon for six years. Last year, acting on a petition by the organizations, the United States banned import of beluga caviar after listing the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Caviar Emptor recommends that consumers avoid wild caviar from the Caspian Sea because of overfishing, and instead choose responsibly farmed caviar produced in the United States and Europe.

“The Caspian states so far have been unwilling to make sturgeon conservation a priority. It is now up to consumers to help save the sturgeon from extinction by not eating the eggs of an endangered species,” said Dawn Martin, President of SeaWeb. “Choosing farmed caviar over the wild product means consumers can celebrate with a clean conscience and can help ensure the sturgeon’s survival in the wild for generations to come.”

In June 2007, CITES will hold its Conference of the Parties’ meeting in The Hague, The Netherlands. Caviar Emptor will ask CITES to institute a more transparent quota-setting process for sturgeon that would allow for international scientific scrutiny of the sustainability of the caviar trade. Caviar Emptor will also ask that CITES require Caspian states to agree on a scientifically valid sturgeon recovery plan before approving future caviar export quotas.

For interviews with scientists, conservationists, or food industry spokespeople, please contact Julia Roberson at +1.828.734.6741 (after February 8 at +44.77.04.54.83.92) and jroberson@seaweb.org or Shannon Crownover at +1.808.391.0281 and shannon@seaweb.org. For more information, see www.caviaremptor.org.

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