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U.S. moving to ban imports of beluga caviar to protect sturgeon

September 27, 2005 - Associated Press

by John Heilprin

WASHINGTON – The government is preparing to ban imports of beluga caviar in an effort to help prevent extinction of the sturgeon that produces the prized eggs.

Trade in beluga sturgeon – one of 25 species of sturgeon – would be suspended, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Burton said Tuesday. That includes the black caviar and meat of the beluga sturgeon.

Fish and Wildlife planned to announce its decision later this week. The ban would start as soon it is published in the Federal Register, but "nothing is a certainty until it's done," Burton said.

The agency rejected such a ban last year but added beluga sturgeon to its list of species "threatened" for survival, a lesser category than "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. Those decisions came in response to a December 2000 petition from a U.S.-based environmental coalition, Caviar Emptor.

Ellen Pikitch, director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami, said Fish and Wildlife planned to ban imports of beluga sturgeon. She said it would mark a victory for the coalition and, more important, for beluga sturgeon.

"It's going to provide the beluga sturgeon the relief it needs, and the U.S. is going to set an example for the rest of the world," Pikitch said. "The status of the species has only worsened in the last five years."

Fish and Wildlife officials said in March that exporting countries would have six months to show plans and timetables that could help the fish's population to recover, protect its habitat and set limits on how many can be harvested.

They had said U.S. trade in beluga caviar could continue, but only if those countries provided the United States with assurances that they can conserve populations of beluga sturgeon. Banning the trade is apparently the result of no such assurances.

Most of the world's beluga caviar is imported by the United States, usually originating from the Caspian and Black seas.
Part of the beluga sturgeon's decline is due to its slow reproduction, which makes their population vulnerable to overfishing, marine scientists say. The fish usually takes about 15 years to reach maturity and then reproduces every three to four years.

Pikitch reported last week, in a study in the journal Fish and Fisheries, that stocks of all species of sturgeon and two species of paddlefish, a related species used for less-expensive caviar, were severely depleted or in danger of become extinct.

"There are very few viable wild populations left," she said.

In 2002, Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, sued Fish and Wildlife to force the agency to respond to the coalition's petition. It said there had been a 90 percent decline in the fish's population between 1980 and 2000.

Trade in beluga caviar is overseen by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

After pressure from CITES in 2001, exports of Beluga caviar and other sturgeon products were suspended for nine months from most of the Caspian region. Trade resumed in March 2002 despite protests from environmentalists.
Since then, CITES has imposed annual quotas on caviar exports, but environmentalists say that hasn't prevented the sturgeon's decline.

Read the AP story online


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