Caviar Crisis Spurs Caspian Sea Summit

National Geographic News
June 13, 2001
Officials from Caspian Sea states and international agencies have been
meeting in Geneva to come up with a plan to restore populations of
sturgeon in the sea, which have fallen dramatically. The precipitous
decline in their numbers has resulted in extremely low harvests of their
eggs, which are used to make caviar.

The meeting precedes
deliberations next week in Paris by the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) on whether
to restrict the caviar trade of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Russian
Federation, and Turkmenistan.

Iran, a heavy caviar exporter, is also represented at the meeting in Geneva but is not facing restrictions because its system for managing sturgeon to maintain stocks is considered relatively effective.

"Caviar-producing sturgeon are one of the world's most valuable wildlife resources, and it is vital to the people of the Caspian Sea region that they be managed sustainably for the benefit of generations to come," said Executive Director Klaus Toepfer of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which led efforts to organize the meeting.

The participants have been considering a number of proposals by UNEP and its partners. One priority is for the countries to reach an agreement on the sharing of fish resources in the region.

Virtual Collapse of Industry

Until 1991, two countries—the former U.S.S.R. and Iran—dominated control of the caviar market. They invested heavily in maintaining fish stocks at sustainable levels and controlling the level of trade, which made it easy to trace the source of any given shipment of caviar.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, however, the system collapsed, and many entrepreneurs dealing in "black gold" emerged to replace the state-owned companies.

According to TRAFFIC, a program established by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and The World Conservation Union (IUCN) to monitor wildlife trade, the amount of recorded sturgeon catches in the Caspian Sea plummeted from 22,000 tons in the late 1970s to 1,100 tons in the late 1990s.

Factors contributing to the decline include reduced river flow, the destruction of spawning sites, official corruption, poaching, organized crime, and illicit trade. In the four former Soviet republics, for instance, the illegal catch of sturgeon is thought to be 10 to 12 times higher than officially allowed quotas.

Reforms Recommended

In response to the situation, the Conference of the Parties to CITES decided to make all species of sturgeon, as of April 1998, subject to strict CITES provisions requiring, among other things, strict permits for export and specific labeling. Export permits are to be granted only if it can be shown that trade is not detrimental to the long-term survival of the species.

More recently, a CITES committee further strengthened the controls by mandating a universal labeling system for caviar exports and requiring countries in the Caspian Sea region to coordinate annual quotas on sturgeon harvests and caviar exports.

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan were urged to substantially reduce their requested quotas for 2001.

They were also strongly encouraged to implement other reforms, such as conducting science-based assessments of sturgeon population levels (with support from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization), strengthening controls over domestic trade in sturgeon, and improving oversight of hatchery production.

The CITES committee called for banning caviar exports from the four countries until their governments have reported progress in implementing measures aimed at reviving sturgeon stocks and controlling caviar exports. A decision on whether they have complied adequately will be made by the Standing Committee of CITES when it meets next week in Paris.

As a result of the stricter controls, illegal caviar exports to Europe have dropped dramatically. Yet domestic markets continue to be a major outlet for illegal catches.

CITES is also pressing Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine to reduce or ban caviar exports until they have improved their own monitoring and trade systems.

Update from UNEP (6/21/01): Key caviar-producing States have agreed to halt sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea for the rest of the year.

Under the agreement, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation have until July 20 to provide the CITES with a detailed inventory of the caviar now in storage from the spring 2001 harvest. Only this caviar may be sold.

The agreement gives the Caspian States until the end of 2001 to survey sturgeon stocks, ask Interpol to analyze the illegal sturgeon trade, call for a study of enforcement needs for combating illegal harvesting and trade, and permit and facilitate inspections by CITES of their sturgeon management activities.

They must also agree by this date on the coordinated management of the Caspian sturgeon resources, including the joint settling of catch and export quotas for 2002.

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