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Caviar put on ice

January 4, 2006 By Rex Dalton This article courtesy of Nature News.

Illicit trade in endangered fish puts kibosh on export of pricey eggs.

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In an attempt to save the endangered sturgeon, international restrictions have been slapped on the export of caviar from key Eurasian fisheries thought not to be keeping a tight enough rein on illegal activities.

The move has been cautiously welcomed by environmentalists, who say that even stronger steps are needed to prevent the extinction of sturgeon, many of which are harvested illegally to secure the high-priced fish eggs.

"This is a good move. It is an indication of how grim the situation is for these fish," says Rick Smith, a mammalogist who is executive director of Environmental Defence Canada in Toronto. He adds that he is surprised by the move. "Frankly, CITES in the past has not characteristically taken such strong action."

Fishy trading

Trade in caviar from wild sturgeon was effectively blocked on 3 January when a decision on export quotas was shelved by the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Geneva-based organization seeks to limit trade in threatened species among its 169 member nations.

CITES says there are continued reports of widespread illegal sturgeon fishing and caviar exports in the areas concerned. Not knowing how many fish are really being caught makes it impossible to come up with sensible, sustainable quotas, they say.

Quotas were put on hold for fisheries in the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea where it meets the lower Danube River, and the Amur River on the Sino-Russian border. These produce most of the desired caviar, such as the eggs from beluga sturgeon (Huso huso).

Nations bordering these waterways are required under the CITES convention to base export quotas on scientific studies. They are also meant to enforce regional conservation strategies to ensure export quotas are not exceeded.

"Governments need to fully implement the measures they have agreed to, to ensure that the exploitation of sturgeon stocks is commercially sustainable over the long term," says CITES secretary general Willem Wijnstekers in a statement. CITES has said it will reconsider quotas if and when this is done.

Farmed eggs

The halt on quotas won't mean a complete lack of caviar on store shelves however, because much of previous years' crops are still unsold, and a small amount of caviar produced from farmed sturgeon can still be traded.

But the wild quotas are much larger than the farmed amounts. In 2002, annual export quotas ranged from nearly 76,000 kilograms from Iran to 23,500 kg from Kazakhstan.

Last month, WWF and TRAFFIC, a Cambridge-based network that monitors wildlife trade, jointly issued a report showing that European authorities had seized 12,000 kg of illegal caviar between 2000 and 2005. CITES officials noted that key European countries have failed to implement policies to ensure imports only of legal caviar.

Officials at Caviar Emptor, a Washington-based consortium of environmental groups fighting to halt wild caviar trade, say CITES' stance is encouraging. "We want this to be long term," says Shannon Crownover, spokeswoman for the consortium.

In past years, CITES has instituted a number of temporary measures to better control the caviar trade. But this is the first time that such a firm move has been made before the spring harvest, says Crownover, which is the biggest harvest of the year.

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