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Friday, 22 June, 2001, 03:07 GMT 04:07 UK
Caspian deal on caviar
Fishmarket in Caspian Sea area
Poaching is rampant as demand outstrips supply
Several Caspian Sea states have agreed to stop catching sturgeon for the rest of the year in order to protect shrinking stocks of the fish prized for producing caviar.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan agreed to the suspension after a meeting in Paris of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - CITES.

Caviar prices, $ for 7oz tin
Caspian Beluga: 514
Caspian Osetra: 395
Caspian Sevruga: 315
American caviar: 135
Salmon caviar: 35
source: Browne Trading
Turkmenistan, which was not present at the meeting, has yet to agree.

But the decision has averted a possible ban on exports of caviar from these countries.

Most of the world's caviar comes from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea where stocks have dropped by about 90% in two decades as a result of pollution, poaching and smuggling.

Sanctions averted

The fishing freeze is part of a 12-month action plan aimed at improving management of sturgeon resources.

The four former Soviet republics - 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.

Caviar on sale in a Moscow shop
In short supply
CITES was said to have been contemplating imposing an 80% reduction in their export quotas, or even a complete ban.

This would have almost certainly forced the price of caviar on world markets much higher.

However, the BBC's James Arnold says caviar lovers can always get caviar from Iran - the fifth Caspian state and the world's biggest producer of the delicacy. Iran was not facing any censure because of its tight management of sturgeon stocks.

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.

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, says our correspondent.

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.

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.

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

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See also:

19 Jun 01 | Business
Crunch time for Caspian caviar
10 Feb 01 | Europe
Moscow hosts caviar crisis talks
05 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Sturgeon slump threat to caviar
08 Feb 00 | Europe
'Fowl' new caviar for the masses
25 May 00 | Europe
Caspian crisis cuts caviar catch
05 Dec 00 | UK
Who eats caviar?
30 May 00 | UK
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