International Institute For Caspian Studies




Caviar Export Ban Could Save Caspian Sea Sturgeon

Cat Lazaroff

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 13, 2001 (ENS) - Officials from Caspian Sea states are meeting in Nairobi today to discuss the development of a regional management plan for restoring sturgeon populations to safe levels. The states are facing new restrictions on their lucrative exports of caviar from Caspian Sea sturgeon as populations of the big fish plummet.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will consider measures to restrict the caviar trade of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan at a meeting next week in Paris. Iran, which is also attending today's discussions, is not facing restrictions because its management system for sturgeon is relatively effective.


Caviar, traditionally the eggs of sturgeon, sells today for up to $140 U.S. an ounce. (Photo courtesy Savory Selections, Inc.)
"Caviar producing sturgeon are one of the world's most valuable wildlife resources, and it is vital to the people of the Caspian Sea region that they be managed sustainably for the benefit of generations to come," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is taking the lead in organizing the meeting.

The national officials will consider "action proposals" put forward by UNEP and its partners. The key proposal is to complete negotiations for a regional agreement on shared fish resources, including sturgeon.

This week's meeting is intended to increase momentum towards an agreement. It is also exploring how to obtain resources for developing the Caspian Sea's full sturgeon potential and assisting the communities that depend on sturgeon for their livelihood.

Until 1991, two countries - the USSR and Iran - virtually controlled the caviar market, investing heavily in controlling and maintaining fish stocks. This made it easy to trace the source of any given shipment of caviar.

But with the demise of the USSR, the system collapsed, and many entrepreneurs dealing in caviar sprang up to replace the state owned companies.


Russian sturgeon caught by a poacher's hooks. (Photo Caroline Raymakers, courtesy TRAFFIC-World Wildlife Fund)
According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and IUCN-The World Conservation Union, the Caspian Sea sturgeon catch has plummeted from 22,000 tons in the late 1970s to 1,100 tons in the late 1990s. Reduced river flow, the destruction of spawning sites, corruption, poaching, organized crime and illicit trade have all contributed to the decline.

One result is that the illegal catch in the four former Soviet Republics is now 10 or 12 times higher than the legal take.

Recognizing the crisis, the 1997 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES listed all species of sturgeon on CITES' Appendix II, effective on April 1, 1998. Their listing means that all caviar exports must now comply with strict CITES provisions, including the use of permits and specific labeling requirements.

To obtain the necessary permits for export, it must be shown that the trade is not detrimental to the long term survival of the species.

In April 2000, CITIES members strengthened the controls on sturgeon by adopting a universal labeling system for caviar exports. It also required all member states with native Caspian Sea sturgeon to coordinate their annual export and catch quotas for 2001. The issue of sturgeon was also added to CITES' ongoing Review of Significant Trade process.

Map showing countries that border the Caspian Sea. 
In December, the CITES Animals Committee considered the results of the Review. Its recommendations, sent to the affected states in February 2001, called on Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan to substantially reduce their requested 2001 quotas for sturgeon catch and caviar exports.

The current caviar export quotas are 790 kilograms (kg) for Azerbaijan, 32,210 kg for Kazakhstan (of which 1,410 kg are allocated to Azerbaijan and 3,890 to Turkmenistan), and 62,040 kg for Russia (of which are 2,300 allocated to Azerbaijan and 1,700 to Turkmenistan). Iran's agreed caviar quota is 82,810 kg.

The Committee also called on the governments to institute a number of reforms, including carrying out science based assessments of sturgeon population levels to ensure that catch and export quotas are scientifically valid. The governments were also asked to strengthen their controls over domestic trade in sturgeon, and improve their enforcement, licensing, identification, labeling and hatchery production and control systems.

The CITES Animals Committee recommended that all exports be banned until the governments report that they have begun these reforms and cut back illegal trade. Once this is done, exports could proceed but with reduced quotas, in most cases cut by 80 percent. A decision on a caviar export moratorium will be made by the CITES Standing Committee next week in Paris.

The CITES Secretariat has proposed a deadline for action by the Caspian Sea governments of July 20. These states oppose further quota cuts.


All sturgeon species, including the pallid sturgeon of North America, are now on the CITES list. (Photo by Mark Dryer, courtesy USFWS)
In addition to the Caspian states, CITES is pressing Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine to reduce or ban exports until they improve their own monitoring and trade systems.

Due to the CITES Appendix II listing and related measures, illegal caviar exports to Europe have dropped dramatically. However, the domestic market for locally caught caviar remains an important outlet for illegal catches.

This means that trade controls are not enough to ensure the sturgeon's long term survival, UNEP argues. International support for stronger fisheries management in the Caspian Sea must be a part of any solution to the sturgeon crisis, UNEP says.