Beluga Caviar Exports to Resume Following Spat over Quotas

4 August 2010

Beluga black caviar will return to the global marketplace after producing countries on the Caspian Sea agreed to allowable quotas for wild-caught sturgeon. A de facto ban was implemented in 2009 when the five Caspian States - Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan - failed to agree on scientifically based quotas as required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The quota agreement has been in place since 2002, when high levels of poaching and illegal trade led to the near complete collapse of the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea. CITES member states agreed that countries sharing access to sturgeon stocks should be required to work together to ensure the industry is sustainable.

After a June meeting in the Iranian capital of Tehran, the countries agreed on export quotas, which were published by CITES on 23 July. The total 2010 caviar quota is 81 tonnes - five tonnes less than the total quota in 2008 and 200 tonnes less than the 2001 quota. "They are not huge differences but the trend is going down," said Carlos Vasquez, a spokesman for CITES.

Caviar quotas for Caspian States amount to 3 tonnes of the prized beluga, 17 tonnes of sevruga, and 61 tonnes of osetra.

Environmentalists call for complete ban

The wild sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea provides 90 percent of the world's black caviar - unfertilised sturgeon eggs. Due the popularity of the delicacy, stocks have been declining steadily since the early 1990s, when the industry was tightly regulated by Soviet Moscow. All species of Caspian sturgeon are now listed as "critically endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Still, all species - including the rapidly declining beluga - remain listed under CITES Appendix II, which restricts their trade on a scientific basis, but does not ban it entirely; trade is illegal only for species listed under Appendix I of CITES.

Of particular concern to environmental groups is the beluga sturgeon, which has been banned in the United States since 2005. The 2010 Beluga export quotas have dropped from their 2008 levels with Iran at 800 kilos from 1,000 in 2008, Kazakhstan at 1,500 kilos from 1,700 and Azerbaijain at a quota of zero from 300 kilos in 2008.

"It's ludicrous to allow any fishing," said Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, US. "The quotas should all have been zero for all of these species."

Black market

However, some say that banning international trade of caviar entirely could be counterproductive. "It was a mistake to have no quotas because it led to an increase in the black market," said Armen Petrossian a major US-based caviar importer.

Mounting demand and limited supply will lead to an increase in the price of wild caviar but it will take at least a month for the prices to settle. Petrossian estimated that prices would be as much as US$500 an ounce. Some experts say wild caviar could cost more than double that of the highest quality farmed caviar.

In the absence of wild caviar, many consumers have become accustomed to the widely available, consistent and less costly farmed caviar, which is now produced at high quality.

More information

The CITES export quotas for 2010-2011 can be accessed here.

ICTSD reporting. "Wild Caspian Caviar Returns." NEW YORK TIMES 27 July 2010. "Caviar producers to resume exports." PRESS TV, 25 July 2010.  "Caviar producers to restart wild caviar exports." TELEGRAPH, 24 July 2010. "Wild Caspian Caviar Return." 27 July 2010. "Beluga Sturgeon in Caspian Sea Reclassified as ‘Critically Endangered.'" SCIENCE DAILY. 22 March 2010.

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