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Caspian Sea: Russia joins fishing ban on endangered sturgeon
Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Ban Will Send Price Of Caviar Soaring

The Herald (Glasgow), July 21, 2001

By John Mceachran

The price of the world's most famous luxury food, beluga caviar, is set to rocket after the Russians yesterday banned fishing for sturgeon in the Caspian Sea.

It means every Caspian country, except Iran, has joined the moratorium designed to save the threatened fish.

And it comes after pirates plundered the inland sea for the valuable black fish eggs, giving rise to fears it was on the verge of extinction.

The amount of sturgeon legally caught in the Caspian, which yields over 90% of the world's caviar, plunged from more than 30,000 tonnes in the late 1970s to less than one-tenth that figure in the late 1990s.

And it has already been priced off the menus even of many wealthy households around the world, including Scotland.

Victor Contini, of Edinburgh delicatessen Valvona and Crolla, said yesterday: "We haven't sold any since Christmas.

"The price has gone up at least 60% in the last five years. A 28- gramme jar of beluga caviar is now selling for (pounds) 79. A few years ago it was under (pounds) 60. Even the cheaper fevurga caviar is now at (pounds) 38.50 for a 2 -gramme jar. That's up from (pounds) 26.

"We are now at the stage where we don't stock it. We can get it in at 24 hours' notice but people only want it for very special occasions." He added: "There is no alternative to caviar. It is unique. You can get things like lumpfish roe but you would never use it as a substitute for caviar. It's not in the same league.

"If you are buying a luxury food like caviar, you want the best. Nothing else will do."

He was speaking after Anatoly Makoyedov, of Russia's state fishing committee, announced: "As of today, all Caspian states, except for Iran, stopped commercial fishing of sturgeon."

The ban on fishing will last at least until the end of this year and involves the former Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan as well as Russia.

Highly organised gangs of poachers have taken a huge toll on stocks of Caspian sturgeon, which produce the shiny black eggs.

Stocks of the famous beluga sturgeon dropped because of the destruction of spawning sites, pollution and the end of Soviet-era fishing regulations.

Russian officials now fear the beluga sturgeon may be extinct outside fish farms.

They trace the problem to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until then, Moscow held sturgeon fishing and the caviar trade under tight control and invested heavily in maintaining fish stock.

But now the caviar pirates use hi-tech satellite navigation equipment to track the giant fish, huge nets to scoop them off the sea floor, and high-speed power boats to escape the authorities. Pirates are believed to net up to 10 times the amount caught by state-authorised fishing, and the illegal profits are estimated at (pounds) 140m a year. But the pirate fishermen themselves see little of the immense profits.

They get paid just (pounds) 14 a kilogramme for risking long jail sentences in the pursuit of the luxury food.

The Russians have already pulled 250 tons of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea this year, but

Mr Makoyedov said they would be sent to fish farms to breed young fish in a bid to preserve stocks for the future.

Russia Joins Fishing Ban On Endangered Sturgeon

The Independent (London), July 21, 2001

By Denis Dyomkin

Russia has stopped fishing commercially for sturgeon, the fish that produces caviar, as part of an attempt by Caspian states to arrest the population decline of the valuable species.

Despite Russia joining a moratorium yesterday, it would still export its stocks of the black fish eggs within quotas allowed by the United Nations regulators, Anatoly Makoyedov, the deputy head of Russia's state fishing committee, confirmed. "As of today all Caspian states, except for Iran, stopped commercial fishing of sturgeon under an agreement with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species Cites ," he said.

Cites, alarmed by the sturgeon population slide in the Caspian Sea, advised Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to ban commercial fishing, a move that will also combat the poaching industry and illegal sales of the delicacy.

Iran was not included in the Cites recommendation because it maintains tough state regulation on caviar production and sales.

Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have said they would join the moratorium, though neither of the two countries has so far made formal statements on enforcing it. Turkmenistan has not officially reacted.

At least one of six sturgeon species native to the Caspian - the dark- coloured beluga - is on the verge of extinction, with officials fearing it no longer breeds outside fish farms.

The desperate shortage of sturgeon can be traced to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Until then, Moscow held sturgeon fishing and the caviar trade under tight control, investing heavily in maintaining fish stocks in the Caspian, which yields 90 per cent of the world's caviar.

Caveat On Caspian Caviar

The Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 2001

By Fred Weir

Moscow -- Making preparations for her recent birthday party, Nonna, a graphic designer, knew one thing was essential: caviar.

So she popped down to Cheriomushky farmers' market, near her south Moscow flat, where a man was loudly suggesting "fresh caviar" to passersby.

Parked nearby, his battered, white Volga sedan had a trunk filled with jars of varying sizes. For a more than a pound of the oily black roe, Nonna paid 1,500 rubles (just over $ 50). "It was fantastic, fresh and smooth," she says. "I know it's probably a terrible thing, but everyone does it. We have so few luxuries to enjoy th ese days."

Experts say black-market trades like this one are are leading to extinction for the Caspian Beluga sturgeon, source of 90 percent of the world's black caviar, a delicacy enjoyed by czars, commissars, and high-livers everywhere.

But it's the legal fishing that's getting the attention for the moment.

As part of a last-ditch international rescue effort, Russia and three other post-Soviet states are freezing Caspian Sea sturgeon fishing as of today. Moscow has been dragged unwillingly into the moratorium - which it insists should not last beyond the end of this year.

"The moratorium is a brilliant step. But we are awaiting clear signs that it amounts to more than lip service," says Arkadius Labon, head of the United Nations-funded Caspian Regional Center for Fisheries Management. "Poaching is the big problem, and there is no sign that Russia is willing or able to do anything about it."

Last month, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) offered the Caspian countries of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan an ultimatum: Halt sturgeon fishing or face a ban on exports of black caviar to rich and hungry Western markets. Black caviar fetches about $ 2,000 per kilogram (about $ 900 a pound) in the US - 10 times the official price in Russia.

"The decision of CITES raises certain doubts," Russia's State Fisheries Committee complained in a statement. "We believe that our 2001 fishing quota of 500 tons was quite reasonable. But we will comply with the decision."

The only Caspian country exempted from the ban threat is Iran, which is considered by CITES to practice effective conservation and policing of its fisheries. But Iran is a small player in the caviar business, with an annual harvest one-seventh the size of Russia's.

Still, experts say legal harvesting is probably the least of the forces that have driven the Beluga sturgeon, which resembles a chainsaw with fins, to the brink of extinction. The damming of the Volga River spawning grounds 40 years ago, pollution, poaching, and drilling connected with the Caspian oil boom have been far more destructive.

"The moratorium will give a little temporary breathing room to the sturgeon, but unless there is a comprehensive environmental plan for the Caspian Sea, they are probably doomed," says Vladimir Logutov, chief Caspian expert for the Ecology Committee of Russia's State Duma (lower house of parliament.) "There has been almost no natural spawning in the Caspian by the sturgeon in 20 years."

Ninety percent of Beluga sturgeon live in the Caspian Sea, the word's largest salt-water lake. Experts say the sturgeon is a unique, prehistoric fish that predates the dinosaurs. Until recent decades, it was not unusual for a sturgeon to live 200 years and grow to weigh a ton.

Today, few live beyond their first spawning at age 10, says Georgy Ruban, an expert with the nongovernmental International Union for the Conservation of Nature. "The sturgeon are being fished ruthlessly out of existence, mainly by poachers."

Russian media regularly report on bitter turf wars among some 500 heavily armed criminal gangs that operate poaching rings along the Russian section of the Caspian coastline.

In the Volga delta, where 70 percent of all wild Belugas go to spawn, armed gangs from the ex-Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan also join in the scramble. Underfunded, overstretched, and outgunned, Russian police seem incapable of making a dent in the problem.

Since the collapse of strict Soviet-era controls, the sturgeon's decline has been precipitous. In the late 1980's the Caspian population numbered about 200 million fish, and a typical annual catch was around 25,000 tons. Though reliable figures are hard to come by, there are thought to be fewer than 10 million sturgeon in the Caspian today. Last year's legal harvest was only 500 tons. Legal exports of caviar from the Caspian region have fallen from 2,000 tons in 1978, to 500 tons in 1991, to 160 tons last year.

Experts, however, say illegal exports from Russia alone may be more than 400 tons annually. "A lot of money is being made by a lot of people through this trade, so don't expect it to end easily," says Mr. Labon.

The Russian government insists its program to save the sturgeon is working, and that international intervention is unnecessary. Begun in Soviet times, industrial fish farms and artificial hatcheries now account for the bulk of Russia's legal harvest and release millions of sturgeon fingerlings each year. In these facilities, caviar is extracted surgically, without killing the fish. "No country is doing as much to save the sturgeon as Russia," says the State Fisheries Committee statement.

Critics respond that fish farms may keep the caviar industry alive, but will not save the sturgeon as a species. "Studies have found that artificially bred sturgeon released into the wild do not return to the rivers to spawn," says Caspian expert Mr. Logutov.

"The genetic diversity and natural life cycle of the sturgeon are destroyed by the hatchery system. The fact that there are a few fish in the sea means nothing if their natural environment has been ruined."

Source: Russian Environmental Digest [REDfiles]


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