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Ban on Trade in Wild Caviar as Sturgeon Stocks Plunge
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Exports Urged to Take Steps to Protect Species: Fish Numbers Said to Have Fallen by 90% in 30 Years
The Guardian (London)
By John Vidal

The worldwide trade in wild caviar was suspended yesterday in an attempt to force countries that export much of one of the world's most expensive foods to prevent plunging stocks of the sturgeon fish.

"We were unable to approve the quotas for this year, so there is now no legal caviar from wild fish," said Juan Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which represents 169 countries and sets annual export quotas.

The suspension of the export of the unfertilised eggs of the sturgeon could last between one and six months, until the governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan, which between them export 90% of the world's sturgeon catch, provide more information to Cites about how they intend to stop illegal exports and work together to allow stocks to recover.

Chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the growing involvement of the Russian mafia and pollution, have been blamed for a massive rise in poaching and a precipitous decline in stocks. Numbers in the Caspian Sea are thought to have fallen 90% in 30 years and slightly less in the Black Sea and major rivers. The fish are also found in smaller quantities in Bulgaria, China, Iran, Romania and North America.

According to WWF and wildlife trade monitor group Traffic, about half of the 27 sturgeon species are now threatened, and two are believed to be close to extinction.

"Sturgeon have been in dire straits for some time and it has been clear that something drastic had to be done to stop the trade in illegal caviar and ensure that the legal trade is sustainable and properly regulated," said Susan Lieberman, director of WWF's global species programme.

The effect on prices of the temporary trade ban is unclear because Christmas is the peak season for buying the delicacy. The global legal caviar trade is estimated at $100m (ё57m) annually, with individual beluga sturgeon weighing up to 136.5kg (21 1/2 stone) worth as much as $50,000 each. Demand is highest in the EU, Switzerland, the US and Japan, which together account for 95% of total imports. Yesterday wild beluga caviar was being sold in London for ё95 for 30g and ё43.50 for 30g of less scarce sevruga caviar.

The illegal trade ranges from private individuals selling jars of caviar at open-air stalls to highly organised smuggling operations, with couriers picking up suitcases prepacked with black-market roe. European police seized nearly 12,000kg of illegal caviar between 2000 and 2005. Germany imported the most illegal caviar (2,224kg), followed by Switzerland,the Netherlands, Poland and Britain. Last year the US banned the import of beluga caviar from the Caspian and Black seas in an effort to protect the endangered beluga sturgeon.

"Countries wishing to export sturgeon products from shared stocks must now demonstrate that their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable," said Willem Wijnstekers, the secretary-general of Cites. "They must also make full allowance for the amount of fish caught illegally," he added. Last night Cites said that when it had more information it would restore quotas, almost certainly at a much lower level than in the past.

"All governments should reflect. Importers such as the EU also have obligations to ensure that all imports are from legal sources, and they must establish registration systems for their domestic processing and repackaging plants and rules for the labelling of repackaged caviar," said Mr Vasquez.

A spokesman for Harrods said: "I cannot see our customers rushing in and panic-buying caviar because of this."

Culinary history

Until the 19th century, caviar was mostly a peasant food, eaten by poor farmers and fishermen as a substitute for meat during religious fasts. The Russian tzars and then the European aristocracy thought it a delicacy and in Communist times, a sophisticated cartel sold it to affluent westerners. It has now become a western symbol of culinary extravagance, but as stocks of wild sturgeon decline, only the super-rich and extravagant can afford the best caviars. Elton John reportedly offered wild caviar and chips to several hundred wedding guests last month.


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