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Caviar from Beluga Sturgeon Added to Quotas
March 04, 2008 -
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor

Caviar from some of the most endangered wild sturgeon will again be permitted for export this year, despite conservationists' view that quotas are too high given the rampant illegal trade.

Despite evidence that beluga sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea have declined by a staggering 90 per cent in the past 20 years, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species again permits the fish to be harvested.

Most sturgeon species are endangered, having been over-fished nearly to extinction in pursuit of their caviar, a prized delicacy that can fetch more than £50 an ounce. Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), whose eggs are considered to be among the finest in the world, is the most valuable and the most endangered.

Scientists from the US-based Pew Institute for Ocean Science have analysed the quotas given by Cites, which are re-set each year, and has determined that beluga sturgeon quotas are virtually unchanged from 2007 and "do little to halt continued population declines."

Sturgeon can grow up to 2,500 pounds and 15 feet long. They can take 15 years to reach reproductive age, and females of many sturgeon species reproduce only once every three to four years, making them acutely vulnerable to over-fishing. The fish must be killed to harvest caviar, and global demand for its eggs has prompted over-fishing and rampant illegal trade.

Last year, quotas for beluga sturgeon were 3,761 kg and this year, the export quota is 3,700 kg. This slight decrease reflects the absence of a quota for Turkmenistan, which is not a Party to Cites but in past years has been allocated an export quota through neighboring Kazakhstan.

Since the beluga population in the Caspian Sea has not increased or stabilised since 2007, the Pew Institute argues that the quotas should be reduced to reflect this.

The United States banned import of beluga caviar in 2006 after listing beluga sturgeon under the US Endangered Species Act.

Dr Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, said: "Once again, the range States have agreed upon beluga export quotas that are too permissive and that will jeopardise sturgeon survival in the wild. We cannot recommend purchasing any wild-caught caviar given the sorry state of sturgeon fisheries management."

Caviar export quotas also decreased slightly for Russian sturgeon, from 27,630 kg in 2007 to 27,430 kg in 2008; and for sevruga sturgeon, which went from 20,337 kg to 18,200 kg, again reflecting the absence of quotas for Turkmenistan.

Quotas for Persian sturgeon dropped from 38,000 kg to 37,000 kg, and represent the only case in which a quota was voluntarily lowered.

Dr Phaedra Doukakis, a research scientist with the Pew Institute, said: "We need to start setting quotas based on sound scientific evidence. For the quota system to be effective at conserving sturgeons in the wild, it must be justified by accurate information about wild populations."

This year marks the first time that quotas are governed by new regulations and review mechanisms established at a CITES conference last June. Interested parties are now empowered to request access to the scientific evidence that led to establishment of the quotas, and Dr Doukakis said the Pew Institute will submit such a request to Cites regarding the 2008 Caspian Sea States sturgeon quotas.

Cites will also hold its first meeting of international experts to review Caspian states' scientific surveys of sturgeon populations in April. A committee, which gained authority last June to conduct this assessment every three years, will examine whether the quota setting system is justifiable.

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