But a survey conducted that same year concluded that poaching and commercial fishing had decimated the beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea by 90 percent over the previous two decades. That study is likely to result in a decision by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare the beluga sturgeon either a threatened or endangered species.
Robert Gable, the head of the service's scientific authority, says that if the beluga sturgeon is listed as threatened, it will leave some room for a continuing caviar trade. If it is listed as endangered, it will lead to a mandatory ban on the trade of beluga products in the United States. Gable says a ruling is expected in the next week or two.
Russia and Kazakhstan, which stand to lose millions of dollars, have sent letters to the agency taking issue with a possible ban. Gable told RFE/RL they see a ban as being overly restrictive considering that an existing convention -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- already covers the caviar trade. "Because the species are already regulated under CITES, part of the opposition to this listing under our Endangered Species Act is that the problems with trade for those species have already been addressed," Gable said. "So those countries were working through the CITES secretariat in Switzerland that is the headquarters coordinating body for this treaty."
Lisa Speer is a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York, one of the organizations that petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the ban. She believes the United States must take a firm stand. "The right thing to do would be to ban the importation of beluga caviar," she said. "These are the eggs of a very endangered species, and the United States should not be contributing to the extinction of what is really a truly remarkable fish."
Speer says a ban on beluga caviar from the Caspian could be viewed as a boon to beluga hatcheries in the United States. "Fortunately, there are very tasty alternatives to beluga caviar that are much more environmentally sound," she said. "And many of the chefs and restaurants that have joined our campaign have begun to serve these alternative caviars that are developed from farm-raised sturgeon in a much more environmentally sound manner."
But Armen Petrossian, the head of Petrossian Incorporated, the largest caviar importer in the United States, says American caviar is no match for the coveted Caspian variety and that real connoisseurs will never switch. Petrossian's grandfather introduced Caspian beluga caviar to Western Europe in the 1920s and later to the United States. Caviar servings at Petrossian's famous self-named restaurant in New York cost from $23 to $550 per person.
Russia's Trade Representative Office in the United States declined to comment on the issue.
Roman Vassilenko, a spokesman for the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, says his country's Ministry for Environmental Protection already works with several U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations on beluga-sturgeon preservation. Vassilenko told RFE/RL that SeaWeb, a Washington-based project designed to raise awareness of ocean life, has taken an active role in beluga-sturgeon-preservation efforts in Kazakhstan. "They have last year concluded successfully a project to return some beluga into the [Caspian] Sea and also a project to extract caviar from beluga without actually killing the fish, manually," he said. "So, that may be an alternative."
Robert Gable of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service told RFE/RL that although the agency's main concern is preservation, it is taking into consideration the fact that a ban on beluga caviar could lead to a surge in illegal trade of the delicacy. "It's sort of a debatable issue," he said. "People bring it up from time to time, not just for our Endangered Species Act, but with this treaty. Sometimes, parties argue that we shouldn't do certain things because it will just make things more desirable -- forbidden fruit, if you will. That's always an issue. But I think sometimes you can't allow yourself to be frozen by the fear that someone will retaliate or will disobey the law -- whatever -- when you try do something."
Most caviar importers oppose a ban, contending that closing the American market would not stop the illegal trade, since caviar is easily transported and concealed. Sales in Russia and Europe would continue. And without sales to the United States, they say, countries like Russia and Kazakhstan would have less money for restocking and enforcing international quotas and regulations.
Supporters -- including several environmental groups as well as Azerbaijan, a minor beluga-caviar producer -- insist that enacting a ban would go a long way toward halting the decline of the fish in the Caspian and Black seas.
Like beluga, the two other main sturgeon varieties used for caviar -- sevruga and osetra -- are regulated according to an international convention on endangered species.