Fragilecologies

Caviar from the Caspian .... To Be or Not To Be

June 11, 1997
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzBlack caviar. Not exactly the fare of most people. In fact, it is often eaten on buttered black bread and washed down with champagne or a fine wine. Although caviar-producing sturgeon species can be found in several countries, from Canada to China, it is generally agreed that the best and most costly caviar comes from three species of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, which is located in southwestern Asia. These three species supply an amazing 90 percent of the world's trade in caviar.

Sturgeon is one of the oldest types of living vertebrates on earth. This fish is considered to be a living fossil, as pointed out in a United Nations report. Fossils of their species are known to go back 250 million years, to the Spielberg (oops!) Jurassic period.

In past decades, Caspian sturgeon could live to be 48 years old. Some of them nowadays survive until they are 28, but this is rare. They can grow to seven feet in length and can weigh up to 250 pounds. Females are taken for their eggs, which are marketed as caviar. A female can yield up to 14 pounds of caviar.

This sturgeon population has been slowly declining since the 1970s. Dams along the Volga River and other rivers that feed the Caspian Sea blocked the natural migration routes of spawning fish, and their ability to reproduce began to decline. Due to heavy overfishing, pollution and sea level changes have also had a negative effect on the sturgeon's ability to survive.

Until the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, the management of the Caspian sturgeon fishery was in the hands of the only two countries that bordered the sea at that time .... the Soviet Union and Iran. Then, fishing was not allowed in the central part of the sea, in an attempt to ensure that the younger fish would be able to return to the rivers in order to spawn. Spawning would ensure a healthy standing stock, enabling sturgeon to reproduce.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, three new countries and two new autonomous republics operating within the Russian Federation were in a position to catch sturgeon and to harvest their eggs. The newly independent countries challenged the existing legal status of the Caspian Sea. Each of the new countries claimed part of the Sea as being within its territorial waters. This was an important move on each of their parts, not because of the caviar exports, but because the Caspian seabed is rich in oil and natural gas. Who owns what has yet to be determined in international law. Thus, no single country has the responsibility to monitor or to protect the sturgeon fish stock.

Caviar is a lucrative international trade item. Its major markets are in Europe, North America, and Japan. Most of what is produced is sold abroad because the countries bordering the Caspian Sea are in dire need of foreign exchange (dollars, pound sterling, yen, etc.).

But, alas, sturgeon numbers have declined sharply in the past several years. There is great concern that the species could disappear altogether — kaput, extinct, gone forever. Unfortunately, the high price of caviar, coupled with the poor state of the Caspian region economies and, perhaps most important of all, the lack of control by any single authority over the fishery, has drawn many poachers into the equation. Even if governments agree to cut catches to zero for a few years, Caspian fishermen will not obey. These fishermen are under great pressure to find creative ways to generate money in order to feed their families. For them, it is a "Catch-22" and also a downward spiral for the sturgeon population and the Caspian caviar trade. The end result of poaching will inevitably be the collapse of the sturgeon fishery.

In a unique move, Germany has proposed to save the sturgeon by putting Caspian sturgeon (and other such species around the world) on the endangered species list. If officially approved, trade in caviar would be banned or, at least, closely monitored. This idea has captured the attention of Caspian countries involved in the caviar trade. Serious international discussions about the fate of the sturgeon and attempts to control illegal poaching are now under way.

CNN recently ran a news story about the plight of the caviar-producing sturgeon and the plight of the fishermen whose families depend on catching them. The fishermen have watched their catches dwindle. But, they have also watched the region's socialist economies crumble. They are in dire need of cash to buy even the most basic food and health items. Their only recourse, they argue, is to continue to catch fish, take the roe, and sell it illegally on the black market. They need work.

Making a bad situation even worse is the fact that the money they get for caviar has declined as the quality has declined; they are catching less mature fish, in part because of the pollutants dumped into the spawning sites, and in part because of the wretched conditions in fish-processing and caviar-canning factories.

But how can they be blamed for trying to feed their families when their governments seem incapable of, if not uninterested in, helping them? They are seemingly locked on a course of destroying the fish population and industry on which they depend in order to weather short-term economic problems. In the meantime, they are destroying their future.

But what can anyone do? The situation seems hopeless — or is it? Enter CITES (pronounced sight-eze).

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which was originally formed to protect elephants from being massacred by poachers for their ivory. It protected the rhinoceros from being killed for its horn, considered to be an aphrodisiac in several Asian countries. By banning international trade in tusks and horns, the incentive for poaching would be sharply reduced (penalties for being caught buying or selling such items were raised). Thus, the sturgeon and other endangered animals could be saved for the betterment of future generations.

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