The main U.S. federal agency responsible for protecting wildlife and plants acknowledged that unregulated overfishing, loss of spawning habitat, and poaching to supply the black-market trade in beluga caviar has led to a notable decrease in the wild beluga sturgeon population.
Nevertheless, it will be six months before any steps are taken to protect the species -- such as the import ban on beluga caviar that activists are urging.
Critics say an immediate and long-lasting ban on imports of beluga caviar by the United States -- the world's top caviar consumer -- is desperately needed to help ensure the fish's survival. As of 2002, the United States imported 60 percent of the world's beluga caviar. The beluga sturgeon, whose eggs are the most sought-after variety of caviar, inhabits only the Caspian and Black seas and spawns in the rivers flowing into them. On the world's legal wholesale market, a kilogram of premium beluga caviar costs an average of $3,200.
Ellen Pikitch is the lead scientist for Caviar Emptor, a coalition of marine scientists and environmental organizations. She said a ban six months from now will do little to protect sturgeon this year, as most of the fishing season will be over by then. "Normally in the Caspian Sea region, about 80 percent of the total commercial catch is taken in the early part of the spring," she said. "So because no action is being taken immediately, most of the fishing will occur this year. So really [the decision to put beluga sturgeon on the threatened species list] won't have any effect on the 2004 catch of sturgeon."
Caviar Emptor also urges the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to immediately suspend international trade of beluga caviar from Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
In Kazakhstan, the environmental group Caspian Nature said the Caspian Sea is so depleted of sturgeon that the United States needs to ban beluga imports completely for at least 12-15 years. This is the time it takes for beluga sturgeon to reach reproductive age.
Armen Petrossian is the president of the Petrossian company in Paris, the world's top distributor of caviar. He favors a restriction of quotas by CITES rather than a ban. "[First] we don't agree with a U.S. ban, because [it] would help develop illegal trade,” Petrossian said. “Second, the producing countries would not have any interest in helping improve the situation of the beluga sturgeon, as they have been doing over the past decade through very expensive programs. They would favor other species. So, I would say an American ban might contribute to the beluga sturgeon's extinction."
Consumers have many alternatives to turn to in case of a ban on beluga caviar, which only represents up to 5 percent of the world's caviar production. The Petrossian company mainly imports Caspian and Bulgarian caviar from wild sturgeons. But it also proposes as alternatives caviar from sturgeon farms in the United States and France.
Sybil Sugarman is the manager of Caviarteria in New York, which sells Russian and farmed American caviar. She said maybe it is time for consumers to consider other options besides beluga caviar.
Sugarman said Caviarteria will still be able to sell other kinds of Russian caviar that are not coming under consideration for banning, like ossetra and sevruga caviars. She also put a lot of hope on less expensive farmed American caviar. "This year we really did a tremendous amount of business with American caviar. [It is] marvelous," she said. "I just had a man come who said he wanted to try the American sturgeon not five minutes ago. I gave him a taste of it [and] he liked it. It's different -- but it's still, in its own rights, excellent."
Caviar from farmed sturgeons represents about 15 percent of the global market. It is mainly produced in the United States, France, and Italy. The Caspian Sea remains the main provider of caviar from wild sturgeon, although some caviar is also produced in Romania, Bulgaria, and China.