July 28, 2004

Dr. Roddy Gabel

Chief, Division of Scientific Authority

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

4401 N. Fairfax Drive

Room 750

Arlington, VA 22203

RE: 50 CFR Part 17; RIN 1018-AT54 - Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Special Rule to Control the Trade of Threatened Beluga Sturgeon (Huso huso)

Dear Dr. Gabel:

The National Aquaculture Association (NAA) submits these comments relative to the proposed rule "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Special Rule to Control the Trade of Threatened Beluga Sturgeon (Huso huso)." The NAA is a national aquaculture trade association representing over 4,000 fish farmers and allied industries. We represent a diversity of species groups including farm-raised catfish, rainbow trout, sturgeon, hybrid striped bass, oysters and clams. The NAA has encouraged and promoted the use of scientifically sound non-indigenous species management decisions by the USFWS and state agencies. We are actively involved in the efforts to develop an appropriate, scientifically sound management plan for the Asian carp in recognition that it has caused environmental degradation. We have also been involved in efforts to appropriately manage the black carp, a species of aquaculture importance but also with potential to cause environmental problems. The NAA strongly supports scientifically sound assessment of non-indigenous species impacts or potential impacts, as well as the use of aquaculture to help mitigate habitat loss or fisheries degradation from human activities. In this regards we are opposed to certain aspects of the proposed special rule because it cannot be supported by credible scientific information or is incompatible with sound economic theory. Specifically, we are opposed to the provision of the special rule that essentially excludes U.S. domestic producers from producing captively bred beluga sturgeon and its products.

In part, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ("Service") intends to achieve protection of wild sturgeon populations in foreign countries by essentially eliminating competition from farmed sturgeon producers in the United States of America. The proposed special rule would require U.S. farms to obtain "threatened species permits" under the Endangered Species Act for farmed fish. Whether such a permit could be obtained remains to be seen given the Services' position on the special permit rule. At the same time, the Service will exempt foreign sources of wild sturgeon from having to obtain such permits. (Federal Register, Vol. 69, page 38865, June 29, 2004).

Remarkably, the Service admits facilities such as U.S. aquaculture producers will not be exempted because to do so "could undermine the economic incentives for sustainable harvests of wild Huso huso in the range countries." (Id.). In other words, the governments of Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine ("range countries") will be permitted to continue to sell wild sturgeon products in the United States without even meeting permit requirements. (69 FR 38863, 38864). These range countries need only provide documentation of their having implemented conservation and management activities in order to continue to import, re-export, and conduct foreign and interstate commerce of wild beluga sturgeon caviar and meat in the United States. The U.S. producers of farmed sturgeon products will be extended no such protection, and will be faced with the insurmountable obstacle of obtaining an unobtainable permit. If the effort of the USFWS is to encourage improvements in range countries' management of beluga sturgeon (through habitat improvement, sustainable capture and fish farming), it is a disincentive to eliminate competition from foreign producers. To maintain an economically viable beluga sturgeon fishery, range countries will need to improve management and habitat protection. Competition encourages such efforts since wild capture fisheries are by far more economical than aquaculture. The proposed special rule would eliminate competition from US domestic producers thereby reducing effort by range countries to better manage their fisheries.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service argues that by eliminating domestic production of beluga sturgeon and their products, the risk to native species of sturgeon would be reduced. There is no credible scientific data to support this contention. The reports cited by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (ASMFC 1998; NMFS 1998; USDWS and GSMFC 1995) are largely hypothetical arguments not supportable by existing data. To our knowledge, the culture of beluga sturgeon in the US appears limited to Florida. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service have proactively instituted a permitting program for the husbandry of foreign sturgeon, including the beluga sturgeon. The purpose of this program is to foster sturgeon conservation in the wild through aquaculture while protecting indigenous species, and where warranted, encouraging the recovery of indigenous sturgeon species. Approximately 70 brood stock beluga sturgeons are captively reared in Florida. Consequently, there is no further need to obtain wild broodstock from range countries. Without credible scientific justification or risk assessment, elimination of this domestic program is arbitrary and cannot be justified. Farther, it will not encourage range countries to enhance their own conservation efforts and thus the proposed special rule is counterproductive.           

The NAA encourages the USFWS to amend the proposed-special rule to specifically authorize/permit and exempt from endangered species permits (similar to what is proposed for range countries) the commercial production of captive-bred beluga sturgeon in the U.S. and the commercial trade of their products (e.g. meat and caviar) produced in the U.S.




John R. MacMillan, Ph.D. President