RFE/RL: Which countries were affected by the ban last year and why has CITES changed its policy this year?
David Morgan: The most important countries are around the Caspian Sea; that's where around 90 percent of the wild caviar comes from. And the countries around the Caspian Sea are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Turkmenistan, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those are the countries that have to agree on their management plan [to protect the sturgeon population]. They have to agree on their catch quotas, and they have to agree on the export quotas for the Caspian Sea. Those are the ones which last year, unfortunately, were not able to provide us with necessary information and this year they have.
RFE/RL: Your agency's export quotas pertain to most types of caviar, but not to the most expensive variety of all -- beluga, which costs some 1,800 euros per 250 grams. We understand that CITES has decided to postpone setting a quota for beluga. Why?
Morgan: [The Caspian littoral countries have given information] for most species, but not yet for the beluga, which is the most valuable of the caviar species. There we are still missing some information, and we're in correspondence with these countries to make sure we can get that information as soon as possible. And we hope we'll be able to publish the quota very soon. But if we don't receive the information by the end of January, then I am afraid we will not be able to publish any quota for beluga for 2007.
RFE/RL: Environmentalists have been worried about the decline of the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea region since the end of the Soviet Union [in 1991]. That brought a virtual collapse of existing management and control systems and an explosion of illegal fishing. The UN has sought to help by having CITES regulate the international trade in all species of sturgeon. This year seems to reflect some progress, since CITES has set caviar export quotas 15 percent below 2005 levels and that comes after the five Caspian basin countries agreed to reduce catch levels for three of the six sturgeon species by 20 percent. Have you received any reaction from conservation groups regarding the levels you have set for 2007?
Morgan: Not yet. No. I'm sure there will be a lot of people who want to comment on the decision, but we haven't received any comments from these groups as yet. Neither negative nor positive.
RFE/RL: CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers has said "the decision taken by CITES last year not to publish caviar quotas has undoubtedly helped to spur improvements to the monitoring programs and scientific assessments carried out jointly by the five Caspian neighbors." Could you clarify a little bit CITES's relationship with the producer countries?
Morgan: The authority for the CITES secretariat to publish quotas is given by the party members of CITES -- 169 countries. And they requested that certain information be provided to us [by the producers states] before we publish the quotas.
The Post-Soviet Environment
THE FRAGILE PLANET: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, old environmental disasters have come to light and new ones have emerged. War, poverty, and weak central-government control have led to serious environmental problems from Eastern Europe to the Russian Far East. RFE/RL has provided extensive coverage of these important issues and of efforts to cope with them.