Caveat on Caspian caviar

Russia today froze fishing for endangered sturgeon.

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."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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