Beluga sturgeon may join threatened-species list
Ludmilla Lelis | Sentinel
U.S. officials have held off banning beluga caviar imports for
Posted April 21,
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
"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