- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

ATYRAU, Kazakhstan Environmentalists are scoring points in the battle to save the beluga sturgeon.

Last week, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the animal-protection arm of the United Nations, banned all trade in beluga meat and caviar.

"What we are saying to the rest of the world is, don't accept any export permits of beluga from now on until further notice from the Secretariat," said Jim Armstrong, CITES' deputy secretary general, in a telephone interview from Geneva.

The beluga, which can grow to 18 feet and live over a century, is the biggest and rarest of the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the last place in the world to have a sizeable population.

Mr. Armstrong said the ban was imposed because of lack of unity among Caspian nations, who were authorized to export beluga caviar this year only on the condition they jointly curb poaching, release fingerlings and make stock assessments.

The ban comes just as retailers were preparing to stock up for the holiday season, when most caviar is consumed. Beluga retails for $3,000 a kilogram in the West.

Meanwhile in the United States, the biggest importer of beluga caviar, three environmental groups that persuaded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list beluga as an endangered species and ban its imports said a three-month public-comment period that ended Tuesday yielded considerable support.

The three groups Seaweb, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council said 70 U.S. chefs sent a letter supporting the ban and saying they had taken beluga off their menus and replaced it with farmed caviar that they said tastes just as good. More than 50 scientists also supported it, the three groups said.

In another development, Azerbaijan broke ranks with the other three sturgeon-fishing Caspian countries Iran, Russia, and Kazakhstan which had always argued that there was plenty of sturgeon left in the sea, and that there was no need for any kind of restrictions on lucrative caviar exports.

In a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Azerbaijan endorsed the proposed import ban.

"The catch of beluga in the Caspian Sea has significantly dropped during the last decades," wrote Gussein Bagirov, Azerbaijan's minister of environmental protection. "Continued fishing pressure on these populations is not affordable."

The about-face is all the more startling because CITES has taken at face value estimates from a Russian study last summer that concluded that there were 9.6 million beluga sturgeon in the sea and thus there was no need to ban trade.

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