A UN panel ordered a temporary halt to caviar exports by the world’s major producers last week, buying time for experts to find ways to reverse dwindling populations of threatened sturgeon—whose eggs provide the culinary delicacy.
Many sturgeon species are suffering ‘serious population declines,’ said the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
Information from sturgeon-exporting countries bordering the Caspian and Black seas, as well as the lower Danube and Heilongjiang-Amur rivers on the Chinese-Russian border indicates stocks are falling rapidly, CITES said.
Major caviar exporters include Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Iran, which are all on the Caspian Sea; Bulgaria and Romania, which border the Black Sea along with Russia. China is also a caviar exporter.
The ban covers exports from the major sturgeon-exporting countries, said CITES, which regulates legal caviar exports through an international system of permits.
The Caspian Sea produces the sturgeons said to be the world’s highest quality. The countries bordering the Caspian Sea account for 80 percent of the global caviar trade.
The UN body said the restrictions on world caviar trade were temporary to permit exporting nations to show they are not driving the species to extinction and are taking steps to preserve the source of the delicacy.
Countries wishing to export sturgeon products ‘must demonstrate that their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable,’ said Willem Wijnstekers, secretary-general of CITES.
‘Governments need to fully implement the measures that they have agreed to ensure that the exploitation of sturgeon stocks is commercially and environmentally sustainable over the long term,’ Wijnstekers added.
CITES said it ‘remains hopeful’ the exporting countries will take the measures may allow international trade to resume.
CITES’ 169 member countries have set strict conditions for permitting caviar exports. Countries sharing fishing grounds must agree among themselves on catch and export quotas based on scientific surveys of the stocks.
The Geneva-based UN body imposed a ban on caviar trade from the Caspian Sea for one year starting in 2001, but allowed sales to resume the next year because of rising sturgeon stocks.
In another restriction, CITES imposed annual quotas on caviar exports—some 250,000 pounds in 2004, down from about 320,000 pounds in 2003—but environmentalists say that has not prevented the sturgeon’s decline.
The conservation group World Wildlife Fund welcomed the CITES decision, noting that caviar importers such as the United States and European Union need to ensure the legality of the goods they bring in.
More than 25,000 pounds of illegal caviar was seized in Europe during the last five years, but a much greater amount of smuggled sturgeon eggs was sold on the street and in fine restaurants, according to WWF and the Britain-based conservation group TRAFFIC.
‘Sturgeon have been in dire straits for some time and it has been clear that something drastic had to be done to stop the rampant trade in illegal caviar,’ WWF’s Susan Lieberman said.
The secretariat’s rules for international caviar trade are ‘robust and comprehensive,’ but will only work to protect sturgeon stocks if they are fully applied, it said.
Countries around the Caspian Sea—the main source of caviar—must develop a recovery plan for sturgeon if the species is to be saved, said the US-based environmental coalition Caviar Emptor.
A long-term trade ban and fishing moratorium is needed for the most imperiled species, such as beluga sturgeon, which has lost 90% of its population in 20 years because of overfishing, according to Caviar Emptor.
Since beluga sturgeon take 15 years to reach maturity, they reproduce slowly and their population is more vulnerable to overfishing (Reuters)