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Caspian: Nations Threatened By Caviar Export Ban

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan are under threat of an imminent ban on all their exports of caviar this year. The threat results from a United Nations effort to preserve one of the most valuable wildlife resources in the world. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch speaks with environmental experts ahead of a crucial meeting next week that will decide whether to temporarily ban some of the world's biggest caviar producers from a market worth billions of dollars.

Prague, 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan could face immediate drastic restrictions on caviar exports unless they take urgent measures needed to save their dwindling sturgeon stocks.

The executive organ of a United Nations body known as CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is due to meet next week (19-22 June) in Paris to review pledges made by the four countries to stem the illegal trade of unfertilized sturgeon eggs. Three of them -- Turkmenistan is the exception -- are among the world's biggest caviar producers.

Possible sanctions being considered by CITES include an overall 80 percent reduction of caviar export quotas requested by the four countries for this year and -- in the worst-case scenario -- a temporary ban on exports.

CITES figures show that 2001 export quotas requested by the Caspian Sea states are 790 kilograms for Azerbaijan, some 32 tons for Kazakhstan (of which 1.4 tons are allocated to Azerbaijan and 3.9 tons to Turkmenistan) and 62 tons for Russia (which includes 2.3 tons allocated to Azerbaijan and 1.7 tons to Turkmenistan). Iran's 2001 export quota is almost 83 tons.

CITES is an international treaty that came into force in 1975. Its secretariat is administered by the Geneva-based United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP.

The convention aims to protect wildlife against overexploitation for trade purposes. Its 152 member states have committed themselves to ban trade in endangered species, as well as to regulate and monitor trade in other species that might become threatened.

In the past, CITES has banned trade in ivory. Three years ago, CITES list of endangered species cited all 25 known sturgeon species, of which only three -- the beluga, the ossetra, and the sevruga -- produce prized caviar. Since then, all caviar exports must comply with strict international provisions, including the use of fishing and breeding permits and specific labeling requirements.

All four of the former Soviet republics that border the Caspian Sea have failed to meet CITES requirements for coordinating their annual catch and export quotas. They have also failed to strengthen control over domestic trade in caviar and to carry out requested assessments of sturgeon population levels to ensure that quotas are, in fact, sustainable.

Six months ago, CITES' Animals Committee issued a series of recommendations that urged Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan to reduce substantially their requested 2001 quotas for sturgeon catch and caviar export. UNEP spokesman Michael Williams tells our correspondent:

"The five Caspian Sea range [that is, shoreline] states have requested quotas for sturgeon and for caviar. And the [CITES] Animals Committee met in December and determined that -- while the Iranian quota makes sense because the Iranian sturgeon stocks are relatively well-managed -- there is not enough confidence in the information given by Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan."

Earlier this week (12-13 June), government officials from Russia -- the world's second-biggest caviar exporter, after Iran -- Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan met in Geneva with UNEP representatives in a last-minute effort to avoid international sanctions.

Turkmenistan -- which has not yet ratified the 26-year-old CITES treaty -- did not attend the meeting and was represented by Azerbaijan. Iran also attended, although it does not face trade restrictions.

At a news conference after the talks, CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers reiterated that, to avoid sanctions, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan must fulfill their obligations under the convention. UNEP spokesman Williams said the Geneva meeting ended with all four countries saying they have agreed on the terms of a joint statement they will submit next week to the CITES Standing Committee -- the body's executive organ -- for approval.

In the joint statement, which Iran has also approved, the four nations pledge to take more action against illegal trade and to allow CITES to monitor their sturgeon industries in the future. The statement also includes proposals for the scientific study of Caspian sturgeon stocks.

But spokesman Williams warns that even those concessions may not prevent the Standing Committee -- which is authorized to make a final decision for CITES -- from imposing trade restrictions on the four countries.

"[There are] two levels. [First,] if the range states come up with a convincing proposal that they will take serious action, coordinate scientific surveys, etc. Even then, the [CITES] Animals Committee is proposing an 80 percent cut because they [the committee] don't think that the current quotas are sustainable. [Second,] if [the four shoreline states] don't come up with any convincing proposal, then it just should be a ban, just to force them to come up with something."

The four governments concerned say the illegal caviar trade in the Caspian basin -- excluding Iran, where commerce appears to be strictly regulated -- amounts to at least 10 times as much as the legal trade. Overall, legal exports and sales on domestic markets in the four nations reportedly generates about $100 million a year.

But independent environmental groups -- such as TRAFFIC, a conservation program operated in part by the World Wildlife Fund -- argue that it is extremely difficult to estimate the actual volume of illicit Caspian caviar trade. That's because, they say, the illegal exports generally move uncontrolled through Turkey, the three Baltic nations, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates.

The collapse of state structures that followed the 1992 disintegration of the Soviet Union is largely responsible for the recent expansion of the illegal caviar trade. Illicit trade and catch have, in turn, dangerously reduced the Caspian Sea sturgeon stocks. The amount of sturgeon legally caught in the Caspian Sea -- which provides over 90 percent of the world's caviar -- plummeted from some 22,000 tons in the late 1970s to 1,100 tons in the late 1990s.

UNEP deputy director Robert Hepsworth said earlier this week that caviar-breeding sturgeon are probably the single most vulnerable wildlife resource in the world today.

The four Caspian Sea countries say that a ban on exports would only make it more difficult for them to find the funds needed for investment in breeding and enforcement of international regulations. International organizations agree that the four nations do need the money generated by caviar exports. But, as UNEP spokesman Williams says, they also believe that without the threat of international sanctions it would be more difficult to get them to take the required measures.

"It is true that the main argument for having legal trade is to bring money in. The same arguments have been made in the case of ivory, for example. But until now, there has been no meaningful response from these countries and it is believed by many people that a ban, while unfortunate, is the only way to force some action out of these countries."

In an interview with our correspondent, TRAFFIC's Europe coordinator, Caroline Raymakers, put the blame on the governments concerned -- especially those of Russia and Azerbaijan. She says that all of them possess the legal means to enforce international regulations on caviar trade.

However, Raymakers also says that a total ban on caviar exports would both increase profits for illegal traders and deprive the four countries of substantial revenues they could use to revamp their fishing, breeding, and processing industries.

"It is quite obvious that banning international trade will not reduce the pressure currently being exerted on [Caspian sturgeon stocks]. That's because there is a domestic market -- and beyond that, a cross-border trade -- which is large enough to absorb the whole caviar and sturgeon meat output. In our opinion, in view of the existing domestic demand, the aim [of the ban] would not be necessarily achieved."

Raymakers says the volume of caviar traded on local markets is much higher than the volume exported to the United States, Europe, or Japan. In addition, she points out, most Caspian caviar available domestically originates in illegal fishing and sales.

As a result of the quotas imposed by CITES, retail caviar prices have doubled on the international market in the past three years. They are now up to more than $2,000 a kilo, compared to between $20 and $70 for the same quantity on the Moscow or Baku black markets.

TRAFFIC's Raymakers also argues that, if the CITES Standing Committee does decide to temporarily ban caviar export from the Caspian states next week, the organization would no longer be able to pressure them to abide by international regulations and monitor their sturgeon stocks. "We had a rather similar situation with ivory. When ivory lost all its commercial value [following an export ban,] local governments started showing less and less interest in preserving elephants."

Yet UN environmental officials believe that a ban may be the only weapon left in their hands to get the four Caspian states to act. UNEP spokesman Williams says the major argument for a ban is that nothing else has worked until now. "So," he says, "you need a stick to force these countries into action."