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Wild Caviar Trade to Face Additional Scrutiny

Importers, consumers now key to sturgeons’ survival
June 14, 2007

Contacts:
In The Hague at the CITES Conference:
Julia Roberson jroberson@seaweb.org 44-77-04-54-83-92

In the United States:
Shannon Crownover shannon@seaweb.org +1-808-391-0281

(June 14, 2007 - The Hague, The Netherlands) An international endangered species conference declined emergency procedures to curb trade of caviar from the rare beluga sturgeon, but plans to strengthen scientific oversight of the wild caviar trade in general.

Scientists and conservationists attending the triennial conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) say the survival of overfished wild sturgeons now depends on the vigilance of importing nations, who have been granted more rights to question exporting countries on the sustainability of the caviar they produce. The revised resolution that governs international trade of endangered sturgeon products passed through a conference committee today and will be voted on by delegates on Friday.

"Many scientists had hoped for a stronger set of restrictions on the wild caviar trade, especially for beluga sturgeon, which will not survive the rampant overfishing occurring in the Caspian Sea," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science and lead scientist for Caviar Emptor, a non-profit campaign to protect and restore wild sturgeons. "The good news is that a system has finally been established that will lift the veil of secrecy off the caviar trade."

Conservationists said the most significant change to the caviar trade resolution was the addition of clauses to increase the transparency and international scrutiny of the quota-setting process. These include:
- Caviar export quotas must be based on a conservation strategy and cannot be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild;
- The CITES Secretariat will be required to share scientific data submitted by range states for the establishment of caviar quotas with any member nation upon request; and
- The CITES committee of wildlife biologists (called the Animals Committee) has been granted the power to convene international experts for a triennial assessment, beginning in 2008, of Caspian states’ scientific surveys of sturgeon populations and their progress, or lack thereof, in implementing required conservation measures.

Pikitch added: "If we are going to save wild sturgeons, consuming nations must use their oversight powers and refuse to import Caspian caviar if the overfishing and steep population declines continue."

At the CITES conference last week, sturgeon scientists and conservationists asked delegates to consider an emergency measure for beluga caviar quotas, which comes from the overfished beluga sturgeon whose numbers have plummeted by 90 percent in the past three decades. Delegates delayed the matter, saying it would be up to the Animals Committee, which meets in 2008, to make recommendations about halting trade. However, delegates recommended in the resolution that next year’s quotas for sturgeon catches and caviar exports be no higher than 2007 levels.

"The jury is out on whether this new resolution will save Caspian sturgeons from extinction," said Dawn Martin, president of SeaWeb and one of the Caviar Emptor partners. "The fate of sturgeons now rests largely in the hands of consumers, who can choose not to eat the eggs of an endangered species. Caviar connoisseurs can help save this ancient species by switching to farmed caviars, which are of the highest quality and are a better choice for the environment."

Scientists and conservationists were against some provisions of and omissions from the new sturgeon resolution, including:
- The removal of the CITES Secretariat’s annual oversight powers of the quota-setting process. The power to approve quotas rests with exporting nations and will be reviewed by the Animals Committee every three years.
- The revised resolution does not explicitly state that range countries must consider the level of illegal fishing and domestic markets when setting catch quotas. CITES in the past has estimated that illegal catches are three to five times higher than legal take of sturgeons.

Other provisions that were welcomed by environmentalists included:
- Improvements in trade monitoring to help reduce fraud, such as requiring real-time reports on export permits granted and urging all nations to implement caviar labelling laws; and
- Encouragement of nations to reduce the personal exemption from 250 grams to 125 grams of caviar per person allowed to be taken across borders.

With wild black caviar fetching more than U.S. $100 an ounce, this product of the 200-million-year-old sturgeon species is one of the world's most valuable wildlife commodities. Once plentiful in the Northern Hemisphere, sturgeons have suffered drastic population declines due to high demand for their roe, or caviar. Although sturgeons have been listed under CITES since 1998, Caviar Emptor, a campaign to protect the species, believes that the international caviar trade remains detrimental to the species' survival.

According to Russian surveys, the population of stellate sturgeon, source of sevruga caviar, is just 10 percent of its 1978 level, and numbers of Russian sturgeon, source of osetra caviar, have dropped 50 percent during the same period. The same data show precipitous declines in beluga sturgeon, suggesting a 45 percent drop in population from 2004 to 2005.

For a copy of the new resolution and for interviews with sturgeon scientists attending the conference or chefs who refuse to serve wild caviar, please contact Julia Roberson (in The Hague) at +44-77-04-54-83-92 and jroberson@seaweb.org or Shannon Crownover (in the United States) at +1-808-391-0281 and shannon@seaweb.org.

For more information, visit www.caviaremptor.org and www.cites.org.

Press release as a PDF file

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