International action needed to save the sturgeon, say conservationists

The World Wildlife Fund has urged international action to preserve the sturgeon, whose eggs are sold as caviar, warning that the fish is threatened with commercial extinction within a couple of years unless illegal and unsustainable harvesting is stopped.

The move followed a meeting by experts from CITES, the international body that governs trade in endangered species, which deliberated the future of the world caviar market amid widespread concern about dwindling numbers of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea region. The experts discussed the plight of ten sturgeon and paddlefish species, including the main caviar bearers.

The CITES scientific advisory committee was expected to recommend export restrictions and possibly export bans against caviar-producing countries including Russia and Iran. In the end, the meeting produced broad agreement about the urgency of the situation, especially in the Caspian Sea, but did not define any concrete actions. On a positive note, a process was established to enable the efforts being made by sturgeon fishing nations to be assessed, and strengthened where necessary.

The Caspian region, which produces nearly two-thirds of the world’s caviar, has seen sturgeon populations plummet 95% in recent decades because of over-fishing, pollution, poaching and smuggling.

International trade in Caspian basin caviar, a renowned delicacy, has consequently declined. Sturgeon catches have fallen from 20,000 tons a year in the 1970s to 1,000 tons by the late 1990s.

Caviar is obtained by killing females and harvesting the unfertilized eggs, which can amount to 15% of the body weight of the sturgeon. The majority of the world’s caviar comes from just three species of sturgeon: the Beluga, or giant sturgeon (Huso huso), the Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedti) and the Stellate Sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus).

“The main reason for the problem is the breakup of the former Soviet Union,” said Craig Hoover, a senior programme officer with Traffic, a conservation group that has been monitoring sturgeon in the Caspian for CITES. “Due to illegal fishing, large-scale illegal trade and other factors, we’ve reached the point where sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea are in critical need of conservation action.”

Nations bordering the Caspian Sea have been asked by CITES to provide the information they use to determine that harvest levels are not harming wild populations. Based on that information, CITES will recommend action to ensure sustainable harvesting.

“The CITES meeting highlighted the critical situation that these species face, and we hope that steps taken over the next few months will begin to reverse the trend and ensure the survival of these remarkable and valuable fish,” said Ginette Hemley, the vice president of species conservation for the World Wildlife Fund.

The recommendations will be developed within the next month, and the countries involved will have three months to implement the most urgent measures, thus avoiding more restrictive actions, possibly including a complete moratorium on international trade.

“Though sturgeon face numerous threats including pollution and loss of spawning habitat, over-harvest and illegal trade have had a tremendous impact on sturgeon populations over the last decade,” added Hemley. “The WWF will continue to watch this process closely to ensure that long-term conservation solutions are found.”

The WWF has urged consumers to use extreme caution when buying imported caviar, as it is almost impossible to distinguish between illegal and legal products.

Before the CITES meeting, three US organisations launched a campaign to highlight the risk to sturgeon and call for a halt to trade in Beluga caviar. The Caviar Emptor: let the Connoisseur Beware campaign, was unveiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb along with a report, Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery.

The campaign filed a formal petition asking the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list Beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, which would halt imports of beluga caviar into the US.

“Overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and poor regulations have collectively driven this species to the brink of extinction,” said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, whose headquarters are at the Bronx Zoo in New York. “Demand for caviar has driven the market value for this fish through the roof while at the same time cutting their life expectancy in half. Beluga sturgeon are nearing the point of no return. These ancient fish have survived the disappearance of dinosaurs from the planet, but will they survive us?”

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