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.
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
"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
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,
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
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
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.
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
"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
Today, every species of sturgeon is considered endangered.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All rights reserved.