U.S. Government Acknowledges Beluga Sturgeon “Threatened with Extinction” But Takes No Action to Protect the Fish

Contact: Justin Kenney, 215.575.4816, Sunny Wu, 202.483.9570


Washington, DC - 04/20/2004 - Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would list beluga sturgeon as a threatened species, but the Service has postponed for another six months any action to protect the species. Demand for beluga caviar--the eggs of beluga sturgeon--has caused the beluga population to plummet in recent decades. Environmentalists criticized the Service’s lack of action, saying an immediate and long-lasting ban on U.S. imports of beluga caviar is desperately needed to help ensure the fish’s survival. The United States is the largest importer of beluga caviar, bringing in more than 60 percent of the delicacy in trade in 2002, according to the most recent figures from World Conservation Monitoring Center, an arm of the United Nations Environment Program. 

The beluga sturgeon, a 200 million-year-old fish, has seen its population decline by 90 percent in the past 20 years, and experts believe few mature beluga remain in the Caspian Sea, the last stronghold for the species. Caviar Emptor, a coalition of marine scientists and environmental organizations, petitioned the government in December 2000 to list the fish as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which would have banned the importation of beluga caviar into the United States. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delay in taking protective measures means the Caspian Sea’s spring fishing season, the biggest of the year, is likely to continue as usual, putting the beluga sturgeon at further risk. 

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the co-founders of Caviar Emptor. NRDC sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002 for failing to act on the Caviar Emptor petition within statutorily required deadlines. “U.S. consumption of beluga caviar is contributing to the perilous state of beluga sturgeon, and the government’s failure to immediately halt imports of beluga caviar means this fish will continue its downward spiral toward extinction.” 

The global legal trade in caviar is estimated at $100 million a year by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The demise of beluga sturgeon, whose coveted caviar CITES has called one of the world’s most valuable wildlife commodities, is due primarily to overfishing, illegal trade, habitat loss and pollution. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal in 2002 to list beluga sturgeon as endangered was met with overwhelming support from 50 leading U.S. scientists, 200 leading chefs and thousands of individuals around the world. According to the Service, it received a total of 4,257 public comments on the proposed endangered listing, and all but 14 were in favor of listing the species as endangered. One Caspian Sea nation, Azerbaijan, also endorsed the action, stating in a letter to the Service from Gussein Bagirov, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, “If commercial catch is continued on the same level there simply may not be enough mature beluga sturgeon remaining in the Caspian Sea to support a fishery in the future.” 

An analysis of the most recent Caspian sturgeon stock survey was conducted by Dr. Ellen Pikitch, the lead scientist for Caviar Emptor who helped found the campaign in her previous position with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). She concluded that the survey indicated an alarming 39 percent decline in the beluga sturgeon population from 2001 to 2002. 

“This is official acknowledgement that beluga sturgeon is headed towards extinction. But the delay in instituting protective action based on the rule is mind-boggling given that the beluga stock in the Caspian Sea is collapsing,” said Pikitch, who became professor and executive director of the University of Miami’s new Pew Institute for Ocean Science in October 2003. “My fear is that the lack of action by U.S. and international trade officials will throw the species over the edge.” 

Because of the U.S. government’s failure to immediately protect beluga sturgeon, Caviar Emptor is calling on consumers to avoid beluga caviar and to reduce their consumption of other Caspian Sea caviars. If consumers do buy caviar, better choices include environmentally sound aquacultured varieties, such as caviar from sturgeon and paddlefish farmed in the United States. 

“Consumers can help save beluga sturgeon and should not wait on the U.S. government to better protect the species. It’s absolutely in bad taste to eat the eggs of a fish that is in such dire straits, especially when there are viable alternatives that are equal in quality and taste to the wild product,” said Vikki Spruill, president of the ocean conservation group SeaWeb and co-founder of Caviar Emptor. “If we don’t give the beluga a break, we may love it to death.” 

Caviar Emptor was launched three years ago by SeaWeb, NRDC and WCS to protect and restore critically threatened Caspian Sea sturgeon. The coalition has led the effort for listing beluga sturgeon as an endangered species in the United States and has called for a halt to international trade in beluga caviar. Caviar Emptor also supports the long-term reduction of export quotas for other Caspian sturgeon and international funding for improved management and enforcement practices. 

We are disappointed that the government has postponed its decision on taking action to protect beluga sturgeon in a meaningful way when the science clearly shows its dismal state,” said Liz Lauck, director of WCS’ Marine Program, whose partnership in the campaign concluded upon Dr. Pikitch’s move to the University of Miami’s Pew Institute. “Our nation’s appetite for beluga caviar has contributed to the species’ decline. The failure to promptly afford the beluga sturgeon full protection diminishes hopes for the species' recovery. 

For interviews with spokespeople, please contact Sunny Wu (swu@seaweb.org, 202.483.9570) or Shannon Crownover (shannon@seaweb.org).

X
(All Fields are required)