Fishing Chief Plans Caviar Monopoly

Itar-TassFisheries committee head Andrei Krainy, left, greeting Transportation Minister Igor Levitin at the Cabinet meeting.
The government hopes to save the sturgeon from extinction by setting up a state caviar monopoly and stiffening punishments for poachers, its top fisheries official said Thursday.

The sturgeon, popularly known as the "tsar fish," has been hunted to the verge of extinction by poachers and criminal groups who spirit its delicate eggs -- caviar -- from the Caspian Sea to diners across Europe, Asia and the United States.

The idea of creating a caviar monopoly has been floated several times since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it took officials five years to agree on how it could work.

The government's chief fisheries official, Andrei Krainy, told the Cabinet that the State Duma could consider a bill this year.

"The idea of a monopoly has been introduced into the bill -- of state regulation of the whole process, from nurturing sturgeon to its processing and sale," Krainy said, Russian news agencies reported.

"This does not mean that the private sector will have no place, but it means that the state will control all the processes very strictly. It will have elements of a state monopoly."

The tsars created a monopoly for the sale of caviar, and the Bolsheviks continued the business. But since communism collapsed, the state has lost much of its control, leaving the sturgeon at the mercy of rampant poaching and rising pollution.

Most of the world's sturgeon spawn in the rivers that flow into the Caspian. The caviar is sold by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia.

Officials say the population of beluga sturgeon, the source of the most expensive caviar, has fallen by 90 percent over the past 20 years.

A spokesman for the fisheries agency said just 9 tons of black caviar was produced legally each year in Russia, none of it for export.

Even in Moscow, once known for its feasts of Beluga eggs washed down with blinis, sour cream and vodka shots, black caviar is now too expensive for all but the megarich.

In Moscow, 1 kilogram of Russian beluga now sells for about $10,000. At the Harrods department store in London, Iranian beluga costs ?10,000 per kilogram ($19,600).

Those prices have made the sturgeon a target for criminal groups and corrupt officials. Fisheries wardens in the Caspian say they are losing the battle against heavily armed poachers.

By bringing the entire production process under monopoly control, the government hopes to make it harder for poachers or gangs working with corrupt officials to get illegal caviar onto the market.

A spokesman said Krainy was even considering implanting electronic chips into sturgeon to help in regulating the catch.

Krainy cited the example of Iran, where strict punishments for poaching have kept the caviar trade firmly under state control. Black caviar is not sold on the streets of Tehran, though it can be bought at the airport.

"In Iran, for example, they impose the death penalty for poaching sturgeon," he told the Cabinet. "I am not calling for that, God forbid, but it shows how seriously the topic is treated."