Global trade in caviar is banned by UN

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The global trade in caviar has been put on hold by the United Nations as a conservation measure to protect increasingly endangered populations of sturgeon, the fish species which produces it.

No new stocks of the world's most expensive luxury food item - selling for up to £4,000 a kilogram - can be exported until further notice from the 12 countries producing it, according to a ruling from the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

The trade is likely to resume later this year, if and when the producing countries submit adequately detailed fisheries management plans for the three "basins" where sturgeon eggs are harvested for the millionaire's favourite snack. These are the Caspian Sea basin, the Black Sea/Lower Danube basin and the Amur river basin on the border of Russia and China.

Until then, no caviar export quotas will be granted to Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, the leading producers of caviar from wild-caught fish, or any of the lesser producers, which range from Bulgaria to Ukraine.

This is potentially a substantial blow for the revenues of these mainly poor nations as the 105,000kg of different types of caviar they were allowed to export in 2005 were worth more than £50m.

There is a substantial illegal trade as well as a regulated one (in Russia, influenced by the Mafia since the break-up of the Soviet Union) and the combination of the two is having a devastating effect on the populations of some of the six main sturgeon species, led by the beluga sturgeon, Huso huso, whose roes give beluga caviar, the most prized and expensive variety. This is now such an endangered fish in the wild that in October the US unilaterally banned beluga caviar imports, a serious move for the producers as the US represents more than 80 per cent of the market.

Cites has reacted to the threats to sturgeon stocks by persuading all caviar countries to agree to a tough new management regime for the fish, which is applicable from the start of this year. But because officials are not satisfied that the plans submitted so far are detailed enough, they have called a halt.

"Countries wishing to export sturgeon products from shared stocks must demonstrate their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable," the Cites secretary-general, Willem Wijnstekers, said. "To do this they must also make full allowance for the amount of fish caught illegally."

Cites officials are convinced their scheme is strong enough to allow a sustainable trade in caviar - but only if it is observed to the letter. "Governments need to implement fully the measures they have agreed to ensure the exploitation of sturgeon stocks is commercially and environmentally sustainable over the long term," Mr Wijnstekers said.

Environmentalists welcomed the move. Susan Lieberman, the director of the global species programme for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: "Sturgeon have been in dire straits for some time, and it has been clear that something drastic had to be done to stop the rampant trade in illegal caviar and to ensure that the legal trade is sustainable and properly regulated."

Dr Lieberman added: "WWF welcomes this strong action by the CITES Secretariat and hopes that it will help preserve the sturgeon for future generations."We also call on caviar producing and importing countries to help wipe out the illegal trade in caviar with tough enforcement measures, including anti-poaching efforts and implementation of the CITES labelling requirements."

Under the new arrangement, caviar-producing countries are meant to export their products only in the year they are harvested, so in theory no old stocks of caviar should now come out of Russia or Iran. The declining numbers of sturgeon first led CITES to introduce limited caviar controls in 1998, and they have been gradually stepped up. The decline of the Caspian sturgeon, which account for 90 per cent of the world's caviar supply, has been precipitous. Official catch levels have fallen from a peak of 30,000 tons in the late 1970s to less than one-tenth of that figure in the late 1990s. By 2,000 the figure was 550 tons and has now fallen further.

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