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Tuesday, 5 December, 2000, 00:02 GMT
Sturgeon slump threat to caviar
Fish WWF
The local market for Caspian and Black Sea sturgeon is strong
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A conservationist group believes the international caviar trade could face a partial ban by mid-2001.

This is the last chance for countries to tackle the sturgeon crisis

Stuart Chapman, WWF-UK
WWF, the global environment network, says several species of sturgeon may be commercially extinct within a couple of years.

It says poaching and over-fishing have reduced sturgeon catches in the Caspian Sea to barely 3% of their levels 25 years ago.

And it accuses the Russian Mafia of putting in peril the existence of a species.

Scientists from the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Cites, are reviewing the annual export quotas of caviar-producing countries at a meeting in the US this week.

Guessing the numbers

WWF says the quotas have not been based on good science, and that population estimates are "at best a guess".

Stuart Chapman, of WWF-UK, said: "This is the last chance for countries to tackle the sturgeon crisis.

"Unless clear answers are provided by exporting countries on their sturgeon management efforts, an international ban on caviar could be introduced within six months for the most endangered species."

In the Caspian basin, which provides 60% of the world's caviar, sturgeon catches have fallen from 20,000 tonnes annually in the late 1970s to 550 tonnes this year.

Although caviar is made from the female sturgeon's eggs, WWF says most of the fish caught are eaten locally and not exported.

Funding the Mafia

In 1996 and 1997, it was estimated that about 10 tonnes of sturgeon caught by poachers were reaching Moscow daily.

Mr Chapman said: "The Russian Mafia are threatening the very existence of a species. Unless urgent action is taken, caviar will become a thing of the past."

Boat WWF
Catches have plummeted in 20 years
He told BBC News Online: "The Mafia are interested only in money, not in the fate of the sturgeon. Caviar is a very lucrative business for them. And the money they make from it may be going into arms-buying, or anywhere."

WWF says the current average price of caviar on the Russian domestic retail market is about $50 a kilo, compared with recent international prices for legally-caught caviar of $800 to $5,000.

It says an international ban on trade in sturgeon products would not stop poaching, as the domestic market is big enough to absorb both the legal and illegal catches. And it fears that if the countries around the Caspian ban sturgeon catches, the poachers will carry on regardless.

"A fishing ban will therefore only stop the legal fishery, but the illegal fishing and black market will continue", WWF says.

Deadly traps

In the Volga river delta, an area about the size of Switzerland, it says Russian officials have since January confiscated 5,000 illegal bottom lines with 80 to 100 hooks each.

They have also seized 2,000 large mesh nets, totalling 60 km (38 miles), in which 70 tonnes of sturgeon were entangled.

In 1998, the estimated length of nets laid by poachers in the Sea of Azov, an arm of the Black Sea which is another area of concern, was from 1,400 to 2,100 km (875 to 1,310 miles).

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) says: "Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, lucrative poaching of these highly valuable fish has become extreme in eastern Europe and the Black Sea and Caspian regions.

"All but two species of sturgeon are classified by IUCN as threatened: six are critically endangered, eight are endangered, six are vulnerable, and one is lower risk (near threatened)."

WWF wants the caviar trade to fund conservation efforts, with governments tackling corruption and illegal sturgeon catches.

Photographs courtesy of WWF

Fish WWF
Some sturgeon can grow to more than six metres long
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See also:

03 Oct 00 | Europe
Poachers threaten caviar future
25 May 00 | Europe
Caspian crisis cuts caviar catch
08 Feb 00 | Europe
'Fowl' new caviar for the masses
22 May 98 | Analysis
Caviar politics in Dagestan
05 Dec 00 | UK
Who eats caviar?
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