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Monday, August 11, 2003
Orlando Sentinel

Beluga sturgeon may join threatened-species list
But U.S. officials have held off banning beluga caviar imports for six months.

By Ludmilla Lelis | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 21, 2004

Federal wildlife officials announced Tuesday that the beluga sturgeon -- an ancient fish that produces the world's most expensive caviar -- should be protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service postponed for six months the potential ban on caviar imports that would normally come with such protective status.

That six-month window buys the federal government time to decide whether to ban or reduce imports of beluga caviar. It also gives a Pierson fish farm in Volusia County extra time to find out whether its unique operation as the only American farm raising beluga sturgeon will be allowed. If special regulations on imports and fish farming aren't completed by October, an import ban and restrictions on the fish farm could take effect.

"The species is not on the brink of extinction, but we are concerned about it," said Roddy Gabel, chief of the agency's division of scientific authority. However, the federal decision disappointed environmentalists who want an immediate ban on imports of the prized fish eggs, which retail for about $75 to $100 an ounce.

Beluga sturgeon numbered about 11.6 million in the Caspian Sea in 2002, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the international commission that controls the caviar trade.

The legal caviar trade is thought to be worth more than $100 million a year. However, the fish population dramatically plummeted after the fall of the Soviet Union due to overfishing and poaching of the sturgeon to support a lucrative black market in the gray fish eggs. The illegal trade is estimated to be six to 10 times greater than the legal market.

Environmentalists have criticized the international effort to control the sturgeon fishery and cite other studies that show the fish stocks are declining. They hoped the beluga would be declared endangered, prompting an immediate ban on imports. That would be a huge blow to the industry because Americans consume 80 percent of the world's beluga caviar.

"I'm disappointed to see the U.S. has not stepped up to the plate and taken stronger action," said Ellen Pikitch, professor and executive director of the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science.

However, international-trade expert Eugene Lapointe thinks an import ban wouldn't help conservation. "I'm a strong believer that you don't stop the illegitimate trade by stopping the legal trade," said Lapointe, who is president of IWMC World Conservation Trust, a coalition that promotes sustainable use of natural resources. "You need the economic incentives for the countries of the Caspian Sea to protect the sturgeon."

Lapointe on Tuesday was touring a Pierson farm that could produce beluga caviar in several years. Miami fine-foods importer Mark Zaslavsky started the farm last year, and it already has dozens of sturgeon, beluga and others, from the Caspian.

Whether the farm can continue will depend on the federal regulations that could be developed during the next six months, but Zaslavsky is optimistic.

"There is no reason not to allow aquafarming of beluga sturgeon," Zaslavsky said. "Through this farming, I'm sure we can relieve the pressure to fish the wild population."

Ludmilla Lelis can be reached
at llelis@orlandosentinel.com
or 386-253-0964.