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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fish Farmer Says End of Caviar Ban Stinks

ASTRAKHAN, Southern Russia -- Alexander Kitanov is on the front lines of the battle to save the 200 million-year-old beluga sturgeon from disappearing, a victim of the tastiness of its own eggs.

Kitanov, who for two decades has been running a fish farm to raise sturgeon fingerlings, or babies, for release in the Volga, is alarmed with the recent decision by the animal-protection arm of the United Nations, CITES, to lift its first-ever ban on international trade in Caspian caviar.

"They should have kept the ban," Kitanov said, when told late last week of CITES' decision. "The belugas are simply going to disappear."

Kitanov isn't alone in his disappointment in the Wednesday ruling by Geneva-based CITES, which stands for Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. Caviar Emptor -- which groups conservation organizations the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb -- are to push for a reconsideration of the lifting of the beluga ban during three days of talks with CITES officials in Geneva starting Tuesday.

"The beluga sturgeon has been called the most valuable fish in the world because of its caviar," said Vikki Spruill, the executive director of SeaWeb. "It is more important now than ever for consumers to realize that it is in bad taste to eat the eggs of an endangered species."

At issue is a magnificent fish that can live for more than a century, grow to six meters and weigh 900 kilograms. But when even underage specimens yield 4.5 kilograms of caviar -- which a poacher in the Caspian region can sell for $500 -- concerns about safeguarding the fish from extinction takes the back burner to easy cash in the eyes of fishermen.

In its decision, CITES is allowing the five caviar-producing states of Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran to export a total of 142 tons of caviar this year, 9.6 percent less than in 2001.

Even though its own publication called the beluga situation "catastrophic," CITES justified its lifting of the ban by saying that Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan had joined Iran (whose caviar exports were not banned last year) in "launching a coordinated program for surveying and managing sturgeon stocks."

"This breakthrough on sturgeon management marks a dramatic step forward toward transparency and cooperation," CITES Deputy Secretary-General Jim Armstrong said in statement.

"There is no such management program," countered Arkadiusz Labon, until recently head of the Caspian Center for Management of Bioresources of the Caspian Environmental Program, which is funded by the European Union.

He said the only coordinating body among the five countries, the informal Committee on Bioresources, "is a cheap surrogate limiting itself to determining catch quotas."

Labon helped organize a three-ship, six-week expedition in the Caspian Sea last summer to count sturgeon, and only 28 beluga were found in the 254 sturgeon caught, far fewer than years past. The trip found that only 15 percent of the beluga caught were adults, another sharp drop over previous surveys.

Labon and other experts say this illustrates how, despite some 70 million to 90 million fingerlings being released around the Caspian by fish farms like Kitanov's, poachers have wiped out nearly all of the adult beluga population over the past 10 years. The situation with the other species of sturgeon, though alarming, is not as bad as the beluga's.

Advocates of the ban say the existence of a legal trade makes the illegal trade much harder to control. The illegal catch is estimated at up to 10 times the legal catch.

Caviar Emptor is fighting in court to get the beluga placed on the U.S. endangered species list. This would end beluga caviar sales to the United States, its second-biggest consumer after Switzerland. U.S. consumption of legal beluga caviar is estimated at 1,600 female fish, according to Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Kitanov, meanwhile, is doing what he can to keep the sturgeon population stable -- but there is little he can do from his Bios hatchery in the village of Ikryanoye, which literally means Caviartown, located a half-hour's drive along the Volga River from Astrakhan at the head of the Volga delta.

Each spring, the fishermen who legally net the sturgeon swimming upriver to reproduce keep the bigger and healthier females alive and bring them to Kitanov's fish farm. At the farm, the most technologically advanced of seven such farms in Russia, the eggs are hatched and the fingerlings are released into the river a few weeks later when they weigh three grams.

"Last year, we got 20 percent fewer beluga females with roe than the previous year," he said. "Even five years ago, I was able to choose the best females, between 20 and 30 years of age, and I'd let the others go. Now I have to keep every one I can get, even though they are almost all underage and a lot of the eggs don't hatch."

He said the drastic fall in the adult population has awoken a deep instinct in the beluga that makes them reproduce before they have reached full maturity, usually around 17 years.

Kitanov has started a policy of performing cesarean operations on all roe-bearing females and keeping them on his farm in the hope that when they will be ready to reproduce again in a few years, they will be in better condition.

"I have about 40 of them now," he said. "They are my insurance."