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Pew Institute Hosts Kazakhstani Team for Sturgeon Workshop

January 15, 2008

The Pew Institute for Ocean Science recently held a productive five-day workshop in New York on management of Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea sturgeon, hosting a team of four Kazakhstani delegates from key agencies charged with managing the ancient and endangered fish.

Sturgeon populations in Kazakhstan are threatened by aggressive fishing for their prized caviar eggs, and have already been overfished in many parts of the world. Led by Pew Institute sturgeon expert and conservation geneticist Phaedra Doukakis, PhD, U.S. conference attendees including Executive Director Ellen Pikitch, PhD, and Chief Scientist Elizabeth Babcock, PhD, shared their expertise in stock assessment, satellite tagging, and genetic techniques and discussed how these tools can be used to manage dwindling sturgeon stocks - particularly beluga sturgeon -- in the Ural River, the last remaining river off the Caspian Sea where sturgeon reproduce unhindered by dams. Sturgeon reproduce late in their life cycle and infrequently, a fact that elevates the risk posed by overfishing.

"The sturgeon fishery has not been carefully managed and stocks are declining as a result," Dr. Doukakis said. "Sturgeons of the Caspian face further challenges of habitat degradation and pollution. Understanding such factors as abundance, migration patterns and habitat use is critically important to improving management and safeguarding the population."

The December 10-14, 2007 workshop provided the opportunity for Kazakhstani guests to learn more about genetic techniques used in the study and conservation of sturgeons. Hands-on laboratory work at the American Museum of Natural History's Sackler Institute of Comparative Genomics and Center for Conservation Genetics gave participants direct experience in using tools considered. The workshop further included a segment on developing mathematical models to understand Ural River beluga abundance and to forecast population changes under varying management scenarios. This landmark work will result in a peer-reviewed publication, which will be the first such publication on beluga sturgeon.

The workshop continued a collaboration between Kazakhstani and American scientists to conserve some of the world's last healthy sturgeon populations, and provided the opportunity to pinpoint potential future projects, including creating educational handouts and posters related to sturgeon conservation, studying and conservating natural spawning habitats, and preserving sturgeon through development of cryobank in Kazakhstan.

"The workshop was a tremendous success," Dr. Doukakis said. "It effectively reinforced the existing American-Kazakhstani partnership while exposing Kazakhstani delegates to new ideas, avenues of research, and colleagues. All were appreciative to have been given the opportunity to work with one another."

Since 2004, the Pew Institute and scientists and managers in the Republic of Kazakhstan have been working together to study and conserve Ural River sturgeon. Beginning in 2006, energy consortium Agip KCO generously funded a multi-year project to further the cooperative program, including the recent workshop. Space for the workshop was donated by the Wildlife Conservation Society's Central Park Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History.

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