In a decision that could jeopardize already imperiled sturgeons, more caviar will be exported from Caspian Sea and Amur River states this year as a result of unacceptably permissive new trade quotas announced Thursday by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Most sturgeon species are endangered and some, like beluga sturgeon, are threatened with extinction. These quotas will further damage this ancient fish's chance of recovery and survival, since sturgeon must be killed to harvest their prized eggs which are then processed into caviar.
"The latest quotas announced by CITES further jeopardize these severely at-risk fish," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Executive Director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, a leader in the effort to safeguard sturgeon. "Sturgeon have been on earth since the time of the dinosaurs, but are being wiped out because of inadequate international and domestic controls. We urge consumers to protest with their wallets by not purchasing any wild-caught caviar."
The United States banned import of beluga caviar in 2005 after listing beluga sturgeon under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but import of caviar from other sturgeon species in accordance with international regulations is allowed.
The new CITES caviar trade quotas revise those that CITES announced in February for the Caspian Sea and Amur River. The quotas further allow export of caviar from farm-raised sturgeon, with China exporting the most farm-raised caviar of any exporting nations for the first time ever. In 2008, China will export 9,400 kg of aquaculture-derived caviar, compared to 0 kg in 2007 and 1,000 kg in 2006.
While aquaculture can be a positive development if it leads to reduced fishing of wild sturgeon, a Pew Institute analysis suggests that wild catches are not decreasing as more farm-grown caviar is produced. It is impossible to tell farm-raised and wild-based caviar apart at this point, which gives an advantage to poachers looking to exceed legal limits.
"We do not have the regulatory tools to decipher aquaculture from wild caviar," said Dr. Phaedra Doukakis, a research scientist and sturgeon expert with the Pew Institute for Ocean Science. "It is imperative that these tools be developed so that aquaculture doesn't become a cover for illegally acquired wild caviar." Dr. Doukakis is also a specialist in genetic regulation of the caviar trade.
Caviar is a prized delicacy that can fetch more than $100 an ounce, and the Caspian Sea is home to beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), whose eggs are considered among the finest in the world. Sturgeon can grow up to 2,500 pounds and 15 feet long, and can take 15 years to reach reproductive age. Females of many sturgeon species reproduce only once every three to four years. Global demand for sturgeon eggs has prompted overfishing and rampant illegal trade. As a result, sturgeons are highly vulnerable to overfishing and unable to recover quickly.
Despite evidence that beluga sturgeon stocks have declined by a staggering 90 percent in the past 20 years, CITES' 2008 export quotas again permit the fish and their eggs to be harvested.
CITES resets the caviar export quotas every year, a system established to ensure that trade in sturgeon products is only permitted from sustainable fisheries. But much evidence indicates the quotas do not reflect the urgent need for protection and the rampant illegal harvest and trade.
In 2007, quotas for Caspian Sea beluga caviar were 3,761 kg and this year, they will remain equally high. The initial 2008 quotas announced in February had lowered the beluga caviar exports slightly, to 3,700 kg. However, the new quota announced Thursday allocates the additional 61 kg to Turkmenistan. Since the beluga population in the Caspian Sea has certainly not increased or stabilized since 2007, the quotas should be reduced to reflect this, according to Pew Institute scientists.
Export of caviar from the Caspian Sea population of Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), an endangered species, will rise to 30,249 kg in 2008, up from 27,630 kg in 2007. CITES on Thursday allocated the additional export rights to Turkmenistan, which is not a Party to CITES but is entitled to a certain amount of the caviar harvested in the Caspian Sea. Export of this caviar must occur through a CITES Party, and in this case, will occur through Kazakhstan (200 kg) and Russia (2,619 kg). The 2008 quotas announced in February had Russian sturgeon exports decreasing slightly this year, to 27,430 kg.
Export quotas for Caspian Sea sevruga sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus) will now remain the same as in 2007, at 20,377 kg. February quotas had set the permitted export slightly lower, at 18,200 kg, but the additional rights have now been allocated to Turkmenistan (2,137 kg to be exported by Kazakhstan, and 40 kg by Russia). Quotas for Persian sturgeon caviar dropped to 37,000 kg from 38,000 kg and represent the only case in which a quota was voluntarily lowered.
The news of Russia's willingness to export additional sturgeon for Turkmenistan, on top of having its own export quota, is especially troubling in the face of Russia's March proposal that Caspian Sea states impose a five-year ban on sturgeon fishing so that the populations can rebound. The new CITES quotas also permit export of yet another Russian caviar: that derived from sturgeon in the 2,700-mile-long Amur River, which forms much of the border between the Russia Far East and China., For 2008, 4,562 kg of caviar can be exported from the Amur River range States in Russia and China. While this is decrease from 2007, when 7,469 kg of caviar were authorized for export from the Amur River, it does not go far enough. No exports whatsoever were permitted between 2004 and 2006 due to the poor conservation status of Amur River sturgeons, particularly Kaluga (Huso dauricus) and Amur (Acipenser schrenckii) species.
"The abundance of Kaluga and other sturgeons in the Amur River are at critically low levels due to severe overfishing by legal fisheries and illegal poaching, as well as poor water quality," said Dan Erickson, a Senior Biologist with Pew Institute who has conducted conservation research with sturgeons in both North America and the Russian Far East. "The move to again permit export of Amur River sturgeons seems not to be based on actual advancements in fisheries management or population health. I know of no new evidence or research to suggest that these species are recovering."
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