Resumption of caspian caviar trade could mean extinction
Conservation organizations say scientific research has been ignored Groups will urge trade officials to reconsider approval of beluga caviar trade at CITES meeting in Geneva next week
(Thursday, March 7, 2002) -- Yesterday's announcement by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that the Caspian Sea states could resume the caviar trade has been met with alarm by scientists and conservation organizations seeking to restore the beluga sturgeon, which is on the brink of extinction.
"The decision to allow continued trade in beluga caviar will take the remarkable, yet critically imperiled beluga sturgeon one step closer to oblivion," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Director of Marine Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Beluga sturgeon simply cannot support any fishing or trade, now or in the foreseeable future."
Citing the fish's 20-year downward spiral and recently released scientific research findings that further document the perilous state of beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the three conservation groups of the Caviar Emptor campaign have reiterated their call for an immediate and sustained halt in international trade of beluga caviar.
The Caviar Emptor partners -- Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and SeaWeb -- will urge CITES' officials to reconsider their approval of a resumption in beluga caviar trade at its policy-making committee meeting in Geneva next week. Export quotas for caviar of several Caspian Sea sturgeon species were announced yesterday by CITES, with overall Caspian beluga caviar exports reduced by a small fraction from the previous year.
"The trade reductions announced this week are too little, too late for beluga sturgeon," said Lisa Speer, Senior Policy Analyst of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The decision to resume the beluga caviar trade is another nail in the coffin for this fish."
The most recent research evidencing beluga sturgeon's dramatic decline is a stock survey published last month by Caspian Environment Programme (CEP), an internationally funded regional organization, which found only 28 beluga sturgeon in the entire survey region, of which 85 percent were juveniles. The CEP report also shows that in just the past seven years, there has been more than a 40 percent decline in mature beluga sturgeon in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, and it shows no evidence of mature beluga sturgeon in the middle and southern Caspian. (For more on the findings of this research, see attachment following this press release.)
"The beluga sturgeon has been called the most valuable fish in the world because of its coveted caviar," said Vikki Spruill, Executive Director of SeaWeb. "It is more important now than ever for consumers to realize that it is in ‘bad taste' to eat the eggs of an endangered species. The alternative may be the loss of a magnificent species that has existed since the time of dinosaurs."
Overfishing and illegal trade to supply the global caviar market, along with habitat loss and pollution, have decimated sturgeon populations of the Caspian Sea. It is widely believed that beluga sturgeon no longer reproduce in the wild. For more than a year, Caviar Emptor has been recommending a halt to the trade of beluga caviar as a key to the survival of the beluga sturgeon. The groups also support the long-term reduction of export quotas for other Caspian Sea sturgeon, and international funding for ongoing stock assessments and improved management and enforcement practices.
The U.S. government is currently considering a petition filed by Caviar Emptor organizations to list beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would have the effect of banning the importation of beluga caviar into the United States. The Natural Resources Defense Council has notified the U.S. government of its intent to sue if it fails to act on the ESA petition. The United States is the world's second largest importer of beluga caviar.
In addition, the three groups are calling on consumers worldwide to avoid beluga caviar and to reduce their consumption of other Caspian Sea caviars during this crisis. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound farmed varieties.
To arrange interviews with the spokespeople, contact Shannon Crownover at (202) 483-9570, ext. 241 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Background information on the Caviar Emptor campaign and a report on the decline of the Caspian Sea sturgeon can be found at www.caviaremptor.org.
Following are key findings of the recently released Caspian Environment Programm report on sturgeon stocks. The source of this summary is based on an analysis of the report by Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Director of Marine Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society.
KEY FINDING #1: The survey found an unusually large proportion of immature sturgeon. Specifically for the beluga sturgeon, the percentage of immature fish as a proportion of the entire beluga population has reached 85 percent, according to the report.
The large proportion of immature beluga sturgeon underscores the significance of the overfishing, both legal and illegal, that has plagued this fish. According to survey data, the average age of beluga sturgeon caught was 8.4 years, which would suggest that this population is severely depleted and nearly incapacitated in its ability to support itself by natural reproduction. There are no quick fixes that could remedy this dire situation. Beluga sturgeon require 15 years to reach reproductive maturity and can live for over 100 years, so this fish needs long-term protection if it is to recover.
KEY FINDING #2: The survey data show a dramatic decline in numbers of beluga sturgeon. Even in the north, where sturgeon should be most abundant at the time of year the survey was done (summer), there were alarmingly few beluga sturgeon caught (27). In the middle and south Caspian, only one beluga sturgeon was caught. No beluga sturgeon were caught off the coast of Iran.
The numbers presented in this new report are very discouraging for the prospects of saving the beluga sturgeon. The beluga sturgeon has reached a critical point that is worse than we expected. A ban on fishing of beluga sturgeon is needed immediately and must be sustained over a long period of time. If we are to have any chance of saving this remarkable fish, there must also be a crackdown on poaching, and the international community must find ways to support the Caspian states in protecting the sturgeon.
KEY FINDING #3: The survey indicates that there has been a marked decline in mature beluga sturgeon just since 1994. According to the report, since 1994 there has been more than a 40 percent decline in mature beluga sturgeon in the northern part of the Caspian Sea and no evidence of mature beluga sturgeon in the middle and southern Caspian. In 1994 and 2001, scientists found very few mature beluga sturgeon. What is alarming about the findings of this new survey is that there has been a sharp decline in numbers of mature beluga just in the past seven years. This new survey presents significant evidence of the beluga sturgeon's accelerating decline toward extinction."