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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Crunch time for Caspian caviar
Caviar supplies are dwindling
With demand outstripping supply, the world's caviar is running out

By BBC News Online's James Arnold

Four of the world's biggest caviar producers are battling to avoid an export ban of the delicacy.

Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which border the Caspian Sea, source of 90% of the world's caviar, are accused of failing to prevent environmental damage and poaching.

Now the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is considering imposing sanctions on the countries at a four-day meeting, which opens on Tuesday in Paris.

These could take the form of an 80% reduction in their export quotas, or even a complete ban.

This will almost certainly force the price of caviar on world markets much higher.

However, caviar lovers should still be able to get caviar from Iran, the fifth Caspian state and the world's biggest producer of the delicacy.

Iran does not face restrictions because of its tight management of the trade.

The four ex-Soviet countries have agreed a package of conservation measures to present to the CITES meeting.

Near extinction

The legal Caspian Sea sturgeon catch has fallen from 22,000 tons to less than 1,000 tons in the last 20 years, and certain sub-species - such as the high-quality Beluga and Osetra - are near extinction.

The four ex-Soviet countries are facing penalties because CITES claims they have not exercised proper control of the sturgeon fishing industry.

Officials said they need to be forced to help themselves.

"We owe it to the people of the Caspian Sea region to help their governments manage sturgeon stocks on a scientific basis and protect them from illegal traders," said Ken Stansell, chairman of CITES's standing committee.

Caviar types
Beluga: The largest and most prized sturgeon species. Light or dark grey eggs.
Osetra: Dark brown to golden large eggs. Almost extinct.
Sevruga: The most abundant caviar sturgeon. Small dark grey eggs.

Although all caviar-producing countries are subject to CITES export quotas, the high prices commanded by caviar on world markets have made it a magnet for illegal fishing, and even organised crime.

According to a report prepared by the Russian office of TRAFFIC, the trade-monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund, 80% of the sturgeon and caviar on sale in Moscow is illegally produced.

The illicit trade is becoming global: last July, US-based Caviar and Caviar Ltd. was fined $10.4m (7.4m) - the largest fine ever in a wildlife prosecution - for smuggling black market Russian caviar into the United States using forged Russian caviar labels.

Environmental blight

At the same time, pollution and commercial development in the Caspian Sea have taken their toll on the marine environment.

Caviar on sale in a Moscow shop
In short supply

The northern Caspian and the mouth of the river Volga - the sturgeon's favoured spawning ground - have been blighted by industrial waste floating downriver from Russian factories.

The increasing importance of the Caspian Sea in petroleum exploration will only make matters worse, environmentalists say.

A year ago, what's being claimed as the world's biggest oilfield was discovered in the Kazakh sector of the northern Caspian.

Iran to the rescue

The caviar market may not dry up entirely, however.

Last March, the US government lifted its embargo on imports of many Iranian consumer goods, including caviar.

In 1999, Iran exported over 80 tons of roe, a record, and has started investing heavily to meet anticipated American demand.

But Iran will only partly ease the market crunch: imports to the US are just now starting to trickle in, and its caviar is premium grade - usually priced 10-20% higher than Russian.

In demand

The net effect is certain to be yet more steep rises in the retail price of caviar, which has already doubled over the last five years or so.

One gramme of Beluga caviar - the most sought-after grade - is now retailing for close to $3 in New York.

Caviar prices, $ for 7oz tin
Caspian Beluga: 514
Caspian Osetra: 395
Caspian Sevruga: 315
American caviar: 135
Salmon caviar: 35
source: Browne Trading

Demand for caviar in Western countries has boomed in recent years, especially in the US, where it has been fuelled by the prolonged stockmarket boom in the late 1990s.

Now, says Gerhard Corsten of Princesse d'Isenbourg et Cie, a London luxury-foods importer, global caviar demand is more than twice the potential supply.

And even the threatened global economic downturn won't be enough to dampen demand, Corsten said.

"The avid consumer of caviar will always find an excuse, whether it's to celebrate or drown his sorrows."

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See also:

10 Feb 01 | Europe
Moscow hosts caviar crisis talks
05 Dec 00 | UK
Who eats caviar?
30 May 00 | UK
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