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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
Beluga caviar faces US ban
Caviar fisherman
Sturgeon numbers have been drastically reduced

The United States is planning to ban the import of beluga caviar because the fish that produces the expensive eggs - the sturgeon - is heading for extinction.

Caviar
Legal sales of caviar are worth around $90m a year, but illegal trade is ten times as much
The US currently takes 80% of the world's legally traded output of beluga - the rest is sold to the European market - and environmentalists say the ban offers the first real hope of saving the sturgeon species.

The ban will come into force in 90 days and is to be overseen by the US Fish and Wildlife Service [FWS] which has listed sturgeon under the US Endangered Species Act.

If the proposal takes effect, it will be illegal to import or export the fish or its products in the US.

But the ban is expected to be contested by US caviar companies; they have until the end of October to lobby the federal agency to reverse its decision.

Declining numbers

The FWS says sturgeon are particularly threatened by illegal fishing and trade by what it calls mafia groups which operate in the Caspian Sea.

Legal trade in beluga is worth around $90 million a year globally, but the illegal trade is thought to be worth ten times that sum.

According to the FWS, the species has already been eliminated from the Adriatic, and is very rare in the Black Sea.

In the Caspian, it says, numbers are down to just 10% of former levels.

Prized eggs

The sturgeon has survived in these waters for nearly a quarter of a billion years.

Each fish can live for up to a century, although they do not begin producing eggs until they are around 15-years-old.

The prized eggs are then sold as beluga caviar, one of the world's most expensive luxury foods.

The high proportion of US consumption of global beluga supplies prompted an environmental agency, Caviar Emptor, to pursue a ban through the courts.

The issue has also been highlighted by the refusal of Jardiniere, a fashionable San Francisco restaurant, to sell beluga to diners.

See also:

15 Jan 02 | Europe
06 Mar 02 | Europe
22 Jun 01 | Europe
20 Jul 01 | Europe
05 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
03 Oct 00 | Europe
05 Dec 00 | UK
30 May 00 | UK
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