Fishy deal down by the Caspian

FIRST there was Opec. And now to hold the world to ransom for another kind of black gold there is Ocec, writes Charles Richards. The Organisation of Caviar Exporting Countries has been set up by the five countries bordering the Caspian Sea - Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Officials meeting in the Iranian port of Bandar Anzali agreed to co-ordinate the world marketing of caviar.

An informal price-fixing arrangement always operated. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, if the Iranians set a price for caviar, from the commonest sevruga to the finest beluga, the Soviet marketing arm would match the price. It would take into account different import duties. EC countries impose 30 per cent duty on caviar from the former Soviet Union and its successors, as developing countries. Duty on Iranian caviar is only 12 per cent, but the US bans imports.

Importers of the salty raw eggs of sturgeon were divided about the effectiveness of the new caviar cartel. John Stas, of W G Whites, the largest British importer of caviar from the former Soviet Union, welcomed the stability after the previous year's trading chaos. 'Hopefully now things will settle down,' he said.

Peter Rebeiz, president of the Geneva-based Caviar House International, was sceptical: 'I don't believe it. As far as I can see, they are still negotiating. I don't think there will ever be agreement. They don't have the same problems.'

Russia is both a producer and consumer. It produces some 150-200 tons a year, of which 20 per cent are exported. Iranians eat far less. Iran produces 240 tons a year, of which 200 tons are exported.