Caviar trade suspended - but can the sturgeon survive?

Posted: 3 January 2006

The suspension of the international trade in caviar from wild sturgeon, announced today by the CITES secretariat in Geneva, has been widely welcomed by environmental groups.

Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme said: "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 and to ensure that the legal trade is sustainable and properly regulated."

According to a spokesman for the Convention on the International Trade in Engangered Species (CITES), which regulated exports of the sturgeon's unfertilised eggs, it proved impossible to set a quota for this year "so there is now no legal caviar from wild fish."

The suspension of trade is expected to last up to six months while the main exporting countries - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan - explain how they plan to clamp down on illegal exports and collaborate to allow stocks to recover. The popularity of caviar is hardly a new phenomenon, writes Mark Schulman. The ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians learned to salt and pickle fish eggs to sustain themselves in times of war and famine. The ancient Greeks served caviar at their lavish banquets. The Persians used it as a medicine. The Russian Tsars and the Emperors of Manchuria coveted it as "food of the gods".

Even for those who can afford the "black pearls", the luxury delicacy doesn't come cheap. A quick browse on the website of Petrossian Paris, the prestigious caviar importer and retailer, shows Royal beluga caviar going for US$886 for 125 grams (about 2-4 servings). The Imperial Special Reserve Persicus goes for almost US$1,000 for the same serving size.

Verging on extinction

According to WWF, about half of the 27 sturgeon species throughout the world are threatened, and two - the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya shovel-nose sturgeons in the tributaries of the Aral Sea - are believed to be verging on extinction. It is estimated that world sturgeon populations have declined by as much as 70 per cent in the past few decades.

Sturgeons can live for over 40 years, but only reach sexual maturity between 6-25 years of age. And, as females do not necessarily spawn every year, it makes this species particularly vulnerable to over-harvesting.

"Overfishing for caviar production is a prime culprit for the collapse of sturgeon populations," says Dr Lieberman. "But habitat loss, disruption of migration routes caused by dams, pollution and poor enforcement have also collectively decimated many sturgeon populations."

Caspian Sea caviar

In recent decades, the Caspian Sea - bordered by the Russian Federation, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan - has supplied the vast majority of the world caviar trade under such exotic labels as beluga, sevruga and osetra.

The fisheries here - with Russia and Iran leading the way - have produced what is widely believed to be the highest quality caviar on the market. In recent years, however, all of the sturgeon species native to the Caspian Sea and the rivers feeding it have undergone serious declines because of habitat loss, destruction of breeding grounds, pollution and mismanaged fisheries.

The six species of sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea include: Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii); ship sturgeon (Acipenser nudiventris); Persian sturgeon (Acipenser persicus); sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus); Stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus); and beluga (Huso Huso).

"The situation in the Caspian Sea is of great concern," said David Morgan, head of the scientific support unit at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). "As most of the world's caviar is harvested there, we are particularly concerned over the impact of unsustainable harvesting and illegal trade on wild sturgeon populations. There is every indication that populations are going down."

Limiting the trade

Since 1998, all species of sturgeons have been regulated by CITES requirements. All but two sturgeon species are included in the Appendix II category where trade is allowed but accompanied by appropriate CITES export or re-export permits (based on scientific and management criteria by exporting countries). Two sturgeon species - Shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) and Baltic sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) - are included in CITES Appendix I in which international trade is strictly prohibited.

Some species are so threatened that the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently suspended import and re-export of beluga sturgeon caviar and meat originating from the Black Sea basin. This follows their decision in September 2005 to suspend trade in beluga sturgeon caviar and meat from the Caspian Sea region. The bans apply to commercial shipments as well as 'personal effects'. International travellers to the US have in the past been able to carry up to 250 grams of caviar without permits. Such transport of the products is now forbidden.

In 2001, CITES issued a temporary suspension of trade in various countries for various species until remedial measures were put in place. That suspension was later lifted with the introduction of a rigid quota system for sturgeon - agreed upon by range States - and a universal labeling system for all caviar tins in trade (not only exported and re-exported caviar, but also caviar tins sold in domestic markets, such as in retail stores) that assists countries, and especially consumers, in identifying legal caviar. Such measures have had some success in regulating the overall international trade. However, several important consumer countries, such as the European Union and Russia, have not yet implemented the labeling requirements.

That is the background to today's announcement, but it will take long-term conservation and better management of the species, as well as regulations to ensure the resource for future generations.

"We are trying to tighten the procedures under what circumstances caviar and other sturgeon products are allowed to be traded, but some activities, especially illegal fishing, are undermining any attempt at scientific management," says Morgan.

Illegal fishing is also undermining the efforts of legal producers and traders that are trying to comply with international trade requirements.

Major source of income

Despite being aware of dwindling sturgeon stocks, most range countries have continued to harvest the fish for domestic and international markets alike. For many of these countries, sturgeons are a major source of income and employment. However, if trade continues at unsustainable levels, local people will not be able to benefit from this resource.

With average monthly salaries in the fisheries industry as low as US$120 a month in the Caspian Sea region and a kilogram of beluga caviar selling at around US$7,000, it's hardly surprising that fishing - both legal and illegal - continues. Although each of the five Caspian Sea countries have internationally agreed upon quotas on the amount of sturgeon that can be caught, it is believed that poachers are catching at least 10-15 times the legal amount of sturgeon.

According to TRAFFIC, the joint wildlife trade programme of WWF and IUCN, intensive fishing and high production rates are directly related to demand. Globally, over 1,200 tonnes of sturgeon eggs were reported as legally imported from 1998 to 2003, of which 46 per cent were imported by the European Union and 24 per cent by the US.

"Demand for caviar is certainly not decreasing, especially in western countries," said Alexey Vaisman, based at TRAFFIC's office in Moscow. "On the contrary, any decrease reported in the international caviar trade is likely to represent either a decline in sturgeon availability in the wild, or more likely, an increase in the unreported illegal trade in caviar."

It is estimated that the legal caviar trade is worth some US$100 million annually - making it one of the world's most valuable wildlife resource. Because retail prices of illegal caviar vary widely from country to country, it is difficult to estimate the value of illegal trade.

While there is a large illegal international trade, the main outlet of illegally poached caviar in Russia, for example, is its own domestic market. A TRAFFIC survey revealed that 80 per cent of the retail outlets in Moscow sold caviar with forged certificates.

"Fighting against the illegal caviar trade is no easy task," added Vaisman. "But, improved enforcement of existing laws in caviar-producing and consuming countries, the implementation of caviar labeling, and regulating fisheries and exports, will help identify illegal caviar and prosecute the offenders."

Restoring healthy rivers

Although not as famous or highly-prized as its Caspian Sea cousins, sturgeon species are also found in the Danube, Europe's second longest river (after the Volga), flowing through nine countries - Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. Here, sturgeons are also fighting a losing battle. By most scientific accounts, all Danube sturgeons are critically endangered. As a result of overfishing and loss of river connectivity - often the result of dam construction throughout the river - sturgeons are no longer harvested commercially in the upper and middle Danube River, and catch statistics indicate a drastic decline in the lower Danube.

"Fishing regulations exist in some countries where quotas for legal fishing are set and restocking with sturgeon hatcheries are being introduced, but it's not enough," said Dr Gerald Dick of WWF's Global Species Programme. "Danube range states need to coordinate and strictly implement their conservation measures in the future."

Until today, the lack of transboundary agreements and weak law enforcement could not stop over-exploitation. That is why organizations like WWF are working with other stakeholders in the region to improve their conservation status.

"A transnational framework for national management is essential," added Dick. "This needs to include improving national legislation, enforcing quotas and promoting regional cooperation, particularly between research and fishery management agencies, and most importantly, reducing illegal catch."

All of these issues are currently being introduced through the Council of Europe's Danube River Basin Action Plan for Sturgeons.

Another part of the equation is the need for more public information and awareness campaigns to highlight the serious threats facing sturgeon stocks. Sturgeons are being overfished, but degradation and loss of habitat due to river modification, such as dams, have also led to loss of spawning areas and disruption of migration routes. High levels of heavy chemicals and other water pollutants also make this fish species highly vulnerable. "Sturgeons are a perfect indicator of the ecological status of rivers," said Dr Lieberman "If the rivers are clean, the sturgeons will thrive. Healthy rivers and healthy fish will benefit local people in many diverse ways."

Healthy waters where sturgeons live will also benefit the sustainable caviar trade in the long-run. So, while there is nothing wrong with celebrating this holiday season with a bit of caviar, think twice before you buy beluga or other caviar that may be sourced from unsustainably caught sturgeon. Otherwise, seaweed and alginic acid on a cracker may be a safe alternative!

Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International