- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — A U.N. agency has quietly halted all caviar exports from the Caspian, which produces about 80 percent of the delicacy, until countries there curb rampant poaching.

All Caspian caviar sold in stores today is at least a year old, and its shelf life is 18 months.

The Geneva-based Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is responsible for approving export quotas from caviar-bearing sturgeon, long has been criticized for endorsing exaggerated sturgeon-population estimates so it can net and sell more fish.

But without fanfare, the agency disclosed recently that as of this year, the Caspian countries will get no export quotas until they start taking poaching into account when they determine how many sturgeon can be captured for their prized eggs each year without diminishing the population.

Last year, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan were allowed to export 340,000 pounds of beluga, sevruga and osetra caviar. The delicacy sells for between $750 and $2,000 a pound in the United States, the largest single importer.

California’s Stolt Sea Farm, by far the largest stateside producer, sells about 15,000 pounds of caviar from white sturgeon a year.

For beluga, the rarest and most valuable species, the supposedly sustainable harvest in Kazakhstan’s Ural River has been set at 20 percent of the fish that go up that river every year. Most Caspian beluga spawn in the Ural.

Jim Armstrong, the deputy secretary-general of CITES, said caviar-exporting states “must now take into account the levels of illegal harvesting … by modifying their annual catch quotas accordingly.”

In an interview last week in Geneva, he declined to estimate the poachers’ take, but he said if it was bigger than the current legal catch, “there is no way they are going to have a legal catch.”

On Tuesday, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia received CITES export quotas of nearly six tons of caviar taken from the Danube River, where Black Sea sturgeon spawn. Poaching there is considered to be under control.

But that’s far from the case in the former Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, Russian scientists estimated that the Caspian basin-wide illegal catch was more than 12 times the legal one.

Today, with far fewer sturgeon swimming in the sea, the proportion is estimated generally at two to five times the legal catch.

In the case of the beluga, this means that between 60 percent and 100 percent of the beluga swimming up the Ural are caught before they can spawn — a clearly unsustainable level that explains why stocks have dropped 90 percent in the past 20 years.

Underpinning the CITES policy is the hope that Caspian governments — notably in Russia and Kazakhstan, the main culprits — will cut poaching in order to resume exports. But that will not be easy.

In both countries, fishermen, traders and local officials say poaching has become a way of life since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought economic upheaval and ubiquitous corruption.

In Astrakhan, the city at the head of the delta of Russia’s mighty Volga River, local officials say privately that poachers hide from wardens and offer bribes when they get caught.

They sell the caviar to organized-crime rings, which can it — often in unsanitary ways — and smuggle it throughout the former Soviet Union, where it is easily available and usually costs less than $150 a pound.

“Poachers are being protected by those who are supposed to fight against them,” Vladimir Yakovlev, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, complained at a conference in June.

He said 90 percent of Russia’s caviar is illegally fished — meaning poachers net nine times the legal harvest — and compared the caviar trade with the narcotics business.

In Kazakhstan, local sources say poachers pay off the local law-enforcement officials and work undisturbed. A beluga female’s 100 pounds of roe is worth $4,000 to the poacher.

A Kazakh prosecutor, Batyr Dzhazbayev, complained in an unusually candid report that despite a considerable increase in funding for anti-poaching equipment, each fish warden on average confiscated only a pound of caviar each month and levied fines of less than $12. He was transferred soon after writing the report.

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