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October 07, 2005 Science Magazine
ENDANGERED SPECIES: Ban on Beluga Caviar Points to Sturgeon's Worldwide Decline
Christopher Pala

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN--Seeking to protect one of the oldest species of fish on Earth, the United States on 30 September banned importing caviar from the king of sturgeon, the beluga. That's good news for the sturgeon, but a bit late. A comprehensive study published last month found that all 25 species of sturgeon and two related paddlefish have been depleted worldwide.
   "This is a case of the lessons not learned," says Ellen Pikitch, director of the Pew Institute of Ocean Science in New York City, the lead author with Phaedra Doukakis of the study in Fish and Fisheries. "For the first time, we're looking not just at the possible disappearance of a species but of a whole order, ... one of the oldest and most interesting ones in the world."

Endgame? Fishers haul sturgeon ashore from their breeding area in the Ural River in Kazakhstan.
CREDIT: CHRISTOPHER PALA

   The study found local extinctions for 19 of 27 species. Belugas caught today usually weigh 150 kg--mere teenagers in a species that should include centenarians--and the study concluded that nearly all mature individuals, which can reach 6 meters in length, have been taken out. "It's no accident that the three species that are in the best shape are all in the States and are all completely protected," Pikitch says. "We need to extend the same protection to the other species, particularly the beluga, before it's too late."
   Since 1997, the United Nations has tried to limit exports of the three commercially harvested species--the beluga, the Russian/Persian, and the stellate--through its regulatory body, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But this hasn't prevented widespread poaching. Three U.S. environmental organizations 5 years ago petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to place the beluga on its threatened list and urged consumers to boycott beluga caviar (Science, 16 September, p. 1799).
   As a result, the United States became the second nation, after Australia, to ban the importation of beluga. FWS Assistant Director for International Affairs Ken Stansell said in a telephone press conference that he hoped the U.S. measure would "encourage other nations to take a closer look at their imports." Stansell, the U.S. representative to CITES, said the 143 member states next meet in June 2007, the earliest date they could consider a proposal to ban the trade. But no such measure has yet been proffered.
   In late July, Russia proposed a moratorium on fishing all three commercial species at a meeting of the Caspian Bioresources Commission, composed of the Caspian countries. The commission, which sets each country's yearly caviar export quotas, will take up the proposition at its next meeting, in November. If these countries adopt the moratorium, international trade will stop without CITES's intervention.
   What a worldwide ban on the wild caviar trade would achieve is unclear, as illicit harvesting would likely continue. "Most of the poached caviar is consumed in the former Soviet Union," says Sabri Zain of Traffic International, an organization that tracks trade in endangered species. "As long as the producer countries don't control their domestic market, stopping exports will have very little effect."
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Christopher Pala is a writer in Almaty, Kazakhstan

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