Caviar may be banned as sturgeon numbers slump

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The Independent Online

Caviar, the ultimate luxury food, may be making its last appearance on Christmas menus - as a result of the fall of Communism. The sturgeon that produce the "black gold" are rapidly approaching extinction because they are being over-fished by the independent states that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Caviar, the ultimate luxury food, may be making its last appearance on Christmas menus - as a result of the fall of Communism. The sturgeon that produce the "black gold" are rapidly approaching extinction because they are being over-fished by the independent states that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The annual catch of the fish in the Caspian Sea, where 90 per cent of the world's population of sturgeon live, has slumped by 97 per cent because they have become so rare.

Early next year an international conference will try to decide on emergency measures to protect them before they disappear and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that there may be a global ban on caviar within six months.

Caviar - the name is Persian for "bearing eggs', from the roe of the sturgeon - has been a luxury for more than three centuries. A spokesman for one importing firm said good quality caviar should be eaten only from a mother-of-pearl spoon because a silver or metal one would spoil the taste, and it should be accompanied by nothing apart from "a good Brut champagne''. Peter the Great employed 50 fishermen to keep the royal tables stocked with the "food of kings''.

One of the first Bolshevik acts after the Russian revolution was to make it a state monopoly and strictly control its trade. The Communists took care to conserve the supreme symbol of capitalist indulgence.

The old Soviet Union had a treaty with Iran, the only other country then bordering the Caspian, to regulate sturgeon catches and conserve the stocks. But this collapsed with the break-up of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Nineties. The new nations of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, which appeared around the world's largest inland sea, see the sturgeon as "hard currency with fins", conservationists say. The price of a pound of high-quality caviar can range from £300 to £2,000.

The sturgeon, the world's largest freshwater fish, can live for 100 years but it takes 18 years to reach sexual maturity and females spawn only three times in their lives, making the species extremely vulnerable to over-fishing. The new states have resisted all control on catches, and 90 per cent of the fish are caught before they have spawned, which means the chance to reproduce has gone.

Though sturgeons can grow to weigh more than a ton, they are so heavily exploited that catching one weighing 100lbs-plus is rare.

The fish are also threatened by dams, which prevent them migrating up rivers to spawn, by pollution, by plans to exploit oil from the sea - and even by radioactive debris from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Russia has tried to save the fish by releasing 80 million fry every year and banning catching them in the sea. But the rapid decline of the species, which has survived since the age of the dinosaurs 250 million years ago, continues.

Earlier this month, the committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species met to try to work out measures to conserve the fish. They meet again early next year.

Stuart Chapman, head of the species programme for WWF-UK, says: "This is the last chance for countries to tackle the sturgeon crisis.''

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