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Caspian Sea: U.S. Imposes Caviar Import Measures

By Lowell Bezanis

Washington, 8 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has put into effect new caviar import measures to protect wild sturgeon, especially the Caspian Sea species.

The measures went into affect last week (April 1). As a result, caviar imported into the U.S. must bear certification it was lawfully harvested or it will be seized at the border.

The new measures are expected to put a dent in the growing illegal trade in Caspian caviar, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates is a $75 million per year business. The regulations are expected to have a major impact on that trade since the U.S. consumes some 30 percent of the world's caviar.

The regulations are part of an international effort to protect wild sturgeon, especially Caspian Sea species, which are imperiled by rampant overharvesting.

The United States and Germany, two of the leading caviar consuming countries, spearheaded a proposal last year to include wild sturgeon under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The move was unanimously supported by 142 countries which adhere to CITES. In placing wild sturgeon under CITES, trade controls, managed by a permit system, were put into place. In practice, this means imported caviar must bear valid CITES permits.

Caviar now destined for the U.S. lacking proper documentation will be confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and importers will be prosecuted for violating U.S. Federal wildlife laws.

In announcing the measures in New York in late March, Director Jamie Rappaport Clark said "The service is determined to do its part to put these criminal elements out of business."

In an effort to put an end to the widespread practice of adulterating caviar as well as illegally harvesting young sturgeon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced a novel plan, relying on DNA testing, to ensure permits reflect shipment contents.

The new measures represent the latest efforts to save the sturgeon of the Volga and Ural rivers and Caspian Sea. Some 70 percent of the world's sturgeon, the source of the finest caviar available, are to be found in these interconnected waters.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, over-fishing became rampant. Russian and Western experts contend sturgeon, a living fossil predating dinosaurs, will be driven to extinction by poachers if not protected. Just as the replenishment rate has dropped off significantly, sturgeon estimates have fallen from 200 million in 1990 to 50-60 million in 1995. Over a ten year period ending in 1996, the official annual harvest fell from an estimated 23,000 metric tons to 3,000.

Both regional and international concern for the precipitous decline of Caspian sturgeon began to coalesce in 1997. Not only was sturgeon listed under CITES, but regional states, prodded by Russia, agreed to ten year 150 million dollar program to restore Caspian sturgeon. The program involves renovating existing fish farms and setting up 10 new ones in an attempt to enable the littoral states to catch 12,000 to 15,000 metric tons of sturgeon by the year 2008.

Progress toward putting an end to the booming illegal caviar trade continues to be complicated by economics as well as politics. The rise in sturgeon poaching stems from the economic hard times Caspian littoral states have faced since independence and their inability to prevent illegal harvesting of sturgeon under spawning age.

Coordination has also been slowed because Caspian littoral states remain divided over the larger problem of the status of this body of water. While Russia and Iran have pushed for a legal regime which makes the Caspian and its resources common property, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have stressed their sovereign rights over their own national sectors of the sea. The latter three states have been reluctant to accept Russian leadership on the issue because they fear it would set a precedent which could harm their efforts to harvest not only caviar, but to exploit the Caspian's sub-sea hydrocarbon reserves.