- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

Caviar from Russia's famed beluga sturgeon is in danger of extinction at Washington's finest restaurants.
The United States, in a move seen as a slap at Russia, this week moved to put the legendary prehistoric fish on the endangered-species list and to ban the import of its $150-an-ounce caviar.
The ban would hurt business at places like Maxim, an upscale Russian restaurant one block from the White House. It sells between 15 and 20 ounces of caviar a month.
Two ounces of its premium caviar sells for $165.
"It is very expensive. There is a limited clientele for this, but it does exist," said owner Alexandra Costa.
If beluga sturgeon is banned, Maxim may import caviar from Canada. "It depends on the quality. People who know Russian caviar know the difference between good quality and bad quality," she said.
The upscale 701 restaurant in downtown Washington sells roughly 15 ounces a week at $65 an ounce. "[A ban] would not greatly affect us, but it would hurt somewhat," said General Manager Larry King.
Ridgewell's Catering, the region's largest, uses caviar imported from Iran, according to principal Susan Lacz Niemann. Beluga sturgeon peaked in popularity in the 1980s, and the company has not used it in many years, she said.
"The days of beluga sturgeon are long gone," she said.
Not so, according to executives at Bemka Corp., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., caviar broker that sells caviar to restaurants in Washington and other major cities. Seventy percent of its caviar comes from Russia, the rest from Iran.
"If this [ban] happens, everybody will be affected badly," said Major Bhutta, the general manager. Iranian sturgeon also would be banned.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal opened a 90-day public comment period, after which a decision will be made. The United States imported 80 percent of the beluga caviar in 2000.
The Russian government insists that sufficient numbers of the 300-million-year-old species, which can live 100 years and weigh 3,000 pounds, still exist for commercial exploitation to continue, even though caviar exports fell from 2,000 tons in 1978 to just over 100 tons this year.
In addition, a European Union-funded stock survey last summer found that 85 percent of the beluga caught were juveniles, and the largest weighed 140 pounds.
Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group, said the U.S. decision "will set the species on the road to recovery."
In late 2000, the group and two other organizations, SeaWeb and the Wildlife Conservation Society, created a campaign called Caviar Emptor a play on the Latin phrase "caveat emptor" meaning "buyer beware" to save the Caspian Sea sturgeon.
Caviar Emptor's evidence presented in a petition persuaded the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose the ban.
Miss Speer said the campaign would step up its drive to have the United States propose a complete ban on the international beluga trade at a meeting of the full membership of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species in Santiago, Chile, in November.
The sturgeon have survived ice ages and other ravages of time, but their delicate flesh and exquisite roe have brought them close to extinction in Europe and North America.
The Caspian population is the last large one in the world. The beluga variety, known in Russia as "tsarskaya riba," or the "fish of czars," is the largest, rarest and most expensive variety of sturgeon.
The U.S. decision comes a year after the endangered-species convention, the animal-protection arm of the United Nations, briefly banned sturgeon fishing in the former Soviet countries.
That measure was rescinded in March after Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan promised to curb poaching and take effective measures to protect the species.
During the Soviet era, sturgeon, which spends most of its time at sea, was harvested only while pregnant females made their way up rivers, mostly the huge Volga, to spawn. The males were usually released.
But since the Soviet Union collapsed, poaching in the Caspian Sea became widespread and perhaps 90 percent of the sturgeon population was wiped out, mostly by ships operating out of Azerbaijan and the autonomous Russian republic of Dagestan, in the Caucasus.
Still, Russia and the other post-Soviet Caspian states opposed the ban, which affected the three species of caviar-bearing sturgeon: beluga, osetra and sevruga.
Iran was excluded from last year's six-month ban because its main export is of a variety of osetra that spends its entire life in Iranian waters, and Iran does not have a poaching problem.
However, the U.S.-proposed import ban would affect Iranian as well as Russian beluga caviar, and both countries are likely to fight it.
As most of the poached caviar is sold inside the former Soviet Union, it is not clear whether restricting legal exports would be enough to save the species.
"There are no quick fixes that could remedy this dire situation," said Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "As a fish that can take 15 years to mature and can live for 100 years, the sturgeon needs long-term protection."

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