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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 01:15 GMT
Caspian sturgeon stocks plummet
Various types of caviar on ice in shop display
The Caspian supplies up to 90% of the world's caviar
By the BBC's Chloe Arnold in Baku

Caviar, a highly prized delicacy produced from the eggs of mature sturgeon, could be in danger of vanishing from the shelves of up-market stores in the West.

The biggest-ever scientific survey looking at sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea has revealed that the fish are rapidly disappearing and could soon become extinct.

Four of the five Caspian states took part in the survey last year - the most in-depth look yet at sturgeon numbers in the Caspian Sea.

Scientists from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Russia spent six weeks trawling across the sea using state-of-the-art radar equipment from Norway to monitor the fish.

They said the most worrying finding was an abnormally large proportion of young sturgeon in comparison to more mature fish.

It is the older sturgeon that produce the eggs used to make caviar - known here as black gold - and as a result they are being over-fished.

The survey also reveals alarmingly small numbers of beluga fish, the rarest species of sturgeon.

Poachers' lucrative trade

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has ordered a partial moratorium on fishing for sturgeon in the Caspian Sea.
Clusters of black sturgeon eggs
Sturgeon eggs are known as black gold in the region

But experts say this will do little to stop poaching, which is thought to exceed official catch levels by up to 15 times.

Caviar smuggling is a lucrative business in the impoverished former Soviet republics, as the roe fetches up to US $1,000 a kilogram in the West.

The Caspian is the source of 80-90% of the world's caviar, but for the last 20 years, sturgeon numbers have been falling steadily.

See also:

05 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jun 01 | Business
10 Feb 01 | Europe
05 Dec 00 | UK
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