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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Gives Caspian States Deadline on Caviar Ban

ReutersCaviar from the endangered beluga retails for about $3.50 per gram in the West.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The wildlife-protection arm of the United Nations last week gave four post-Soviet Caspian countries three months to provide convincing evidence they are taking measures to protect the world's last great population of sturgeon or face an international ban on caviar exports.

Conservation enforcement agencies from the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, known as CITES, said Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan needed to prove by June that they have complied with an agreement, signed in Paris in 2001, to protect the beluga, stellate and Russian sturgeon, which provide nearly all of the world's caviar.

"If we find that they had not fully complied, caviar trade involving these four countries would stop," said John Sellar, the organization's senior enforcement officer, by telephone from Geneva, where the three-day meeting took place.

A representative for a coalition of three environmental organizations -- the Natural Resources Defense Council, SeaWeb and the University of Miami Pew Institute for Ocean Science -- sharply criticized the delay, saying the four states had already amply demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to curb poaching and take other measures to prevent the sturgeon from being fished to extinction.

"CITES has threatened to close down the fishery many times, but they don't seem to have the spine to do it," said The Pew Institute's Phaedra Doukakis, who attended the meeting. "Time is running out, particularly for the beluga."

Caviar from the beluga, the largest and most endangered of the commercially harvested species, retails for $3.50 per gram in the West. The beluga can live for up to 100 years and weigh more than 1,800 kilograms.

Overfishing of the beluga, which takes 18 years to reach sexual maturity, would damage stocks for years.

CITES' Sellar said the four countries needed to provide more information on their own domestic caviar markets.

"We know what's going on in the Caspian Sea, but we want to know what's going on in Moscow," he said, highlighting fears that beluga caviar may be exported illegally via Moscow.

All four countries insist they are in full compliance with the Paris agreement.

In Astrakhan, at the head of the Volga delta, a 6-meter-long stuffed beluga lies on display in the city museum, whose chief taxidermist estimates it must have weighed 1.8 tons.

There and in Atyrau, on Kazakhstan's Ural River, the main other Caspian river used by spawning sturgeon, fishermen, fish scientists and market sellers agree on one thing: that each year there are fewer sturgeon.

It is an open secret that poachers pay off fish wardens -- sometimes in advance, sometimes only when caught. As a result, officials in both cities admit privately that there has been no perceptible difference since the Paris agreement was signed three years ago.

Last year, a prosecutor reported that in 2002 in the Atyrau region, where most of Kazakhstan's sturgeon poaching takes place, 2,669 illegal fishing devices were seized from 523 poachers, along with 11 tons of sturgeon and half a ton of caviar. Of these, 132 poachers were convicted.

The average fine was $46, or about what market sellers say they pay poachers for 450 grams of caviar.

The activities of the local anti-poaching law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor wrote, "do not justify the results," given that they have received large increases in hardware, ranging from boats to radios and camcorders. He was fired soon after issuing his report.