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.

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