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article imageFishery Experts Dismayed At Lifting Of Caviar Ban

By Christopher Pala     Apr 4, 2002 in Technology
ASTRAKHAN (dpa) - A recent decision by the U.N. body CITES to lift a ban on caviar exports from post-Soviet Caspian countries has drawn strong protests from experts who work with the beluga.

This is the largest and rarest of the sturgeon fish that produces the delicacy.

Alexander Kitanov, who raises young sturgeon for release in the Volga river and the Caspian Sea to help prevent the species from vanishing as it did in Europe and North America a century ago, says commercial fishing of beluga should have been banned long ago.

"Last year, we got 20 per cent less females with roe (eggs) than the previous year," he said in an interview at his farm near Astrakhan, at the head of the Volga delta.

"Even five years ago, I was able to choose the best females, between 20 and 30 years of age. Now the only ones I get are under age, and the roe is bad."

Overfishing and poaching in the Caspian prompted the ban last summer by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

But because today most of the beluga are born in hatcheries like the one run by Kitanov, the lack of mature females is having a devastating effect on the genetic heritage of a species that is more than 200 million years old, experts say.

Even though its own publications have called the situation "catastrophic", the Geneva-based CITES justified its decision Wednesday to lift the ban.

Countries involved (Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) had joined Iran (whose caviar exports were not banned last year) in "launching a coordinated programme for surveying and managing sturgeon stocks", it said.

"There is no such programme," said Arkadiuz Labon of the Caspian Environmental Program. "There is no effective mechanism for management and that's the tragedy."

Labon took part in a three-ship expedition in the Caspian last summer that found that only 15 percent of the beluga caught were adults.

He and other experts say this illustrates how, despite some 70 to 90 million young so-called fingerlings being released around the Caspian by fish farms like Kitanov's, poachers have in 10 years wiped out nearly all of the adult population.

During the Soviet era, fishing at sea was successfully prohibited and adult sturgeon were only fished when they swam up the Volga or other smaller rivers around the Caspian in order to lay eggs.

But now fishing at sea is so widespread, especially in Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan, that the scientific expedition's trawlers were unable to enter certain coastal areas because of the abundance of illegal nets.

In the United States, a coalition of environmental organizations called Caviar Emptor is fighting in court to get the beluga placed on the U.S. endangered species list. This would end caviar sales to the United States, its biggest consumer.

"Continued heavy fishing is clearly not sustainable," said Ellen Pikitch of Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the groups.

Noting that CITES did cut the caviar exports by 9 percent compared to 2001, Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council said it was "clearly too little, too late".

As for Kitanov, he has started a policy of performing Caesarian 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 five years, they will be in better condition.

Some experts in the region have warned that black caviar will become all but unobtainable without a 20-year fishing ban to stop the plundering of stocks of sturgeon.

The legal caviar trade alone has been estimated to be worth some 100 million dollars a year.
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