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."
Christopher Pala is a writer in Almaty, Kazakhstan
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