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Species on the Brink

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Caspian Sea Sturgeon Victims of World's Taste for Caviar

GENEVA, Switzerland, January 11, 2002 (ENS) - An investigation of caviar smuggling by the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has concluded that smugglers are moving illegal caviar through the United Arab Emirates.

The caviar producing sturgeon of the Caspian Sea are perhaps the single most valuable wildlife resource anywhere in the world today.

sturgeon Poaching and smuggling are lucrative. Caviar brings up to $1,000 for half a pound in the west. Its trade value plus environmental degradation of the Caspian Sea have brought the sturgeon to the brink of extinction.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the annual sturgeon catch in the Caspian Sea was 50,000 tons. Today, it is less than 5,700 tons. Over the past 20 years, the population of Caspian sturgeon has dropped by about 90 percent.

The CITES secretariat has been monitoring re-exports of caviar from the United Arab Emirates for months. This effort was prompted by suspicions about the lawful origin of UAE caviar shipments and by reports that organized crime groups in the country, especially in the city of Dubai, were coordinating illegal sales of caviar.

An examination of CITES permits and certificates for the re-export of caviar indicates that caviar with a wholesale value in excess of $20 million left the UAE during the first 10 months of 2001. Much of this caviar seems to be of unlawful origin.

Unscrupulous dealers have been exploiting weaknesses in the UAE's legislation, its lack of import and export taxes on caviar and its practice of encouraging foreign companies to use the Emirates as a trading base.

Using forged documents and making false declarations to officials, traders have been able to obtain CITES re-export certificates from the local authorities. The caviar has then been shipped to Asia, Europe and North America and sold as being of lawful origin.

During its investigation, the secretariat received assistance from CITES Management Authorities and law enforcement agencies in several countries, especially the Russian Federation, where the caviar is thought to have been harvested. Several shipments were prevented from leaving the UAE or seized by importing countries after consultation with the secretariat.

"Although it is regrettable that large quantities of caviar were able to enter into international trade illegally, we have now moved to prevent further illicit shipments. These efforts, combined with action taken by the authorities of the United Arab Emirates, are expected to halt further re-exports of illicit caviar from that country," said CITES Secretary-General Willem Wijnstekers.

Wijnstekers "Such substantial profits have been made, however, that it is highly likely that those engaged in this illegal trade will move their operations elsewhere," Wijnstekers said.

"It is essential to the campaign against illicit trade in caviar that new trade routes and operating bases be identified as soon as they emerge," he said.

CITES has taken steps to facilitate this by sharing the intelligence gained during its UAE investigation with all national CITES Management Authorities and with Interpol and the World Customs Organization.

CITES will continue to closely monitor trade from the United Arab Emirates, Wijnstekers said.

Until 1991, two countries, the USSR and Iran, virtually controlled the caviar market, investing heavily in controlling and maintaining fish stocks. This made it easy to trace the source of any given shipment of caviar. With the demise of the USSR, the system collapsed, and many entrepreneurs dealing in "black gold" sprang up to replace the state owned companies.

One result was that the illegal catch in the four former Soviet republics became 10 or 12 times greater than the legal take. The legal caviar trade has been estimated to be worth some $100 million annually. Because prices of illegal caviar vary widely from country to country, it is difficult to estimate the value of illegal trade, but it is clearly enormous.

Last June, the key caviar producing countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan reached an agreement with CITES on a 12 month action plan that included a halt to sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea until the end of 2001.

The fifth Caspian Sea country, Iran, already has a functioning sturgeon management system.

The agreement gave the four nations until the end of 2001 to conduct a comprehensive survey of sturgeon stocks.

They were also directed to ask Interpol to analyze the illegal sturgeon trade. As part of that pledge the four countries were told to call on the CITES Secretariat - in collaboration with Interpol and the World Customs Organization - to conduct a study of enforcement needs for combating illegal harvesting and trade. They must also permit and facilitate on-site inspections by CITES of their sturgeon management activities.

caviar The four caviar producing countries have met their pledge to set fishing quotas for the year 2002, and they have also surveyed the stocks of caviar producing sturgeon, an Azerbaijani fisheries official said Thursday.

Any failure on the part of these countries to implement the June 2001 agreement would result in zero quotas for caviar exports in 2002.

The economic importance of the sturgeon and its caviar is tremendous, but development and pollution have taken their toll on the sturgeon population in the North Caspian Sea.

The North Caspian Sea is now the focus of oil and gas exploration. In 1998, nine international oil companies formed an operating company in Kazakhstan, OKIOC (Offshore Kazakhstan International Operating Company), to carry out a six year oil and gas exploration program in the Kazakh sector of the Northeast Caspian Sea.

OKIOC has adopted a very strict discharge policy that does not permit the discharge of any drilling wastes or solid wastes from its drilling rig and no discharges from any of the marine vessels in the project. It requires all vessels and barges to be equipped with separate wastewater tanks and the means to discharge it in the port of Bautino.

At the same time, Kazakhstan has introduced new tough environmental legislation to restore and preserve the sturgeon population.

Sturgeon spend most of their lives in large bodies of water like the Caspian Sea, but swim up rivers to lay their eggs, explains that American Museum of Natural History in its Seminar on Science, Caviar Case Study: Endangered Sturgeon. In the 1960s, the Soviets banned sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea, but allowed harvesting in rivers, where egg bearing sturgeon go to spawn.

Dams now block the rivers where sturgeon spawn. "Because all the major rivers of the Caspian have been dammed, Huso huso, the species that produces beluga caviar, now has no place to lay its eggs," the museum seminar explains.

"To replenish this species' stock, a Russian hatchery formerly released 80 million farm hatched fry into the Volga River annually. But the current economic crisis in Russia, and a shortage of captive breeding animals, has caused this program to founder. Huso huso now faces extinction by overfishing."

Today, every species of sturgeon is considered endangered.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All rights reserved.

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