The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to allow imports of beluga caviar, despite having granted "threatened with extinction" status to the beluga sturgeon last year. Yesterday, the government service announced that it has established conditions that must be followed by countries wishing to export beluga sturgeon meat or caviar to the United States.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said its decision is intended to encourage countries around the Caspian and Black seas to try to revitalize the dwindling sturgeon populations so that they can continue exporting the prized and valuable caviar to the United States.
These countries will have six months to comply with the conditions. They must file management plans for the beluga fisheries, setting limits on how much can be harvested, and demonstrate that national legislation has been enacted to help protect the sturgeon.
But conservation groups that had sought endangered species status for the beluga sturgeon objected to the move. Caviar Emptor--a coalition of SeaWeb, Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science--said it had expected the service to significantly restrict or ban beluga caviar imports based on the sturgeon's threatened status.
"We're extremely disappointed that the beluga caviar trade was not banned," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If this had been an important food fish, I could understand the government's unwillingness to ban its import outright, but this is strictly a luxury item."
Conservationists say that beluga populations in the Caspian Sea have plummeted by 90 percent in the past two decades due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and lack of effective governmental management.
The United States is the world's largest importer of beluga caviar. Because of the sturgeon's decline, international trade in beluga caviar dropped from 25 tons in 2001 to just less than 9 tons in 2003, of which the United States imported 5.3 tons, according to data compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Center, an arm of the United Nations Environmental Program.
Caviar Emptor issued a press release calling on consumers worldwide to boycott beluga caviar and to reduce their consumption of caviar from other threatened Caspian sturgeon. Instead, the group suggested, consumers can buy domestic roe from fish farmed in an environmentally sound manner.