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Russia: Vanishing Sturgeon Could Spell End Of Caviar

This week in the United States, representatives from 152 nations are meeting to discuss trade in endangered animal species. Topping the agenda at the UN-sponsored conference is Caspian Sea sturgeon. There is widespread concern that overfishing could drive this ancient animal to extinction and with it, the precious commodity known as caviar.

Prague, 14 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the ages, sturgeon roe, or caviar, has graced the tables of the wealthy and well-born, an edible symbol of opulence. It was an irony, therefore, that in the Soviet workers' state, the Caspian Sea sturgeon -- from which 90 percent of the world's caviar is derived -- enjoyed a privileged existence.

But Soviet leaders knew that caviar, along with other natural resources, could earn them precious hard currency as an export commodity. The sturgeon catch was carefully controlled and the caviar meticulously collected, graded, and shipped to foreign markets.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the state's fishing and caviar-processing monopoly also disintegrated. Freedom had arrived and in the Soviet successor states that border the Caspian, the sturgeon catch became a free-for-all. Caroline Raymakers, an expert on the Caspian sturgeon, is senior fisheries officer at TRAFFIC, a joint conservation program operated by two non-governmental organizations, the World Wildlife Fund, and the World Conservation Union. She says:

"The whole system collapsed: the control system, the trade routes -- everything that was established to control both fisheries and trade collapsed. That was a big problem and since then, the system has not been re-established."

After nearly a decade of overfishing, the sturgeon has become an endangered animal and caviar yields are plummeting. Raymakers notes that on average each year:

"Twenty thousand tons of sturgeon were caught in the Caspian Sea in the [19]70s. Now, in the late [19]90s, the annual catch was down to 1,000 tons."

There are 25 types of sturgeon, but only three -- the beluga, ossetra, and sevruga -- yield prized caviar. The beluga is the most sought-after: It can grow to 6 meters in length and weigh up to a ton, yielding 15 percent of its body weight in roe. But it takes a female beluga 20 years to reach sexual maturity, making the species especially vulnerable to overfishing. If nothing is done to limit current catches, scientists say both the fish and its eggs will soon swim into the history books.

In 1998, the 152 nations that are party to the UN treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, imposed an international quota of 239 tons a year on caviar exports in a first effort to stop the decline of the sturgeon. Delegates representing those countries are meeting again this week to decide whether to recommend further cuts or even a total ban on caviar trading.

Since 1998, as a result of CITES quota, global retail caviar prices have doubled, to more than $2,000 a kilo. But at the source, in the Russian city of Astrakhan, a bucket of fresh beluga roe brought in by poachers can be had for as little as $50.

Raymakers does not favor a total ban on caviar exports. She says this would do nothing to Russia's large domestic market, while at the same time it would increase profits for smugglers. According to Raymakers, the key is to re-establish a functioning regulatory mechanism in Russia and other post-Soviet Caspian states to keep track of the sturgeon catch and re-introduce stock management.

The lack of controls on the Russian side has led to a drop in caviar quality, forcing many foreign importers to switch to Iranian suppliers. Thierry Uldry is the head of Caviar House, a leading supplier of caviar to the European market. He says that before the breakup of the Soviet Union, his company dealt mostly with Russia. Now, its main partners are in Iran.

"Our company, which was founded in 1950, used to work almost exclusively with Russian caviar and the Russian state monopoly from 1950 until 1991. In 1991, with the collapse of the USSR, the direct impact has been a reduction in terms of quality because no control took place anymore in the caviar production in Russia."

Iran has retained its carefully controlled state monopoly on sturgeon fishing and caviar processing, and the country earns praise for its balanced approach. According to Caroline Raymakers:

"Iran is definitely making a lot of efforts to comply with international regulations and also is very concerned about the stock, and they have really put forward a lot of measures. For instance, one of the best things they've set up is that some of the money from the international trade of caviar is going back into building hatcheries to restore the Caspian Sea with small sturgeon."

Fish farming, or aqua-culture, is another viable option. But Raymakers says it will take a long time for capacity to grow sufficiently to supply world markets. At present sturgeon farms are only able to provide a tenth of global export quotas.

Thierry Uldry points to the crocodile as an example of how human management of a species has brought it back from the brink of extinction.

"We can look at a similar issue, which happened about 15 years ago with the crocodile. The crocodile was almost wiped off the planet and the crocodile has been saved thanks to the skin of the crocodile. And today, I think we can really, without any doubt, save the sturgeon thanks to the caviar."

Recommendations made by scientists at this week's CITES meeting are due to be reviewed by the treaty's executive panel, which meets next June in Paris. Raymakers says she would like to see caviar-producing countries given precise guidelines on how to manage their sturgeon stocks and collect data about them, to provide the underpinning for future policy.

A century ago, Russia's tsars feasted on golden caviar from the prized sterlet sturgeon. But the nobility's insatiable hunger for this rarest of roes drove the fish to near extinction. Whether the same fate will befall the beluga, ossetra, and sevruga depends on man curbing that appetite.