Animal Writes
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21 March 2001 Issue
A [Belated] Holiday Fish Story

by Beth Geisler - Dec. 01, 2000 - Animals' Agenda

In the movie You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan rallies to protect her small, endangered family bookshop from Tom Hanks and his menacing chain of discount bookstores. At an upscale holiday party, the popular protagonists shoot barbs at one another over the buffet -- all the while competing for a mere spoonful or two of caviar that garnishes a side dish. In this scene, far more than the bookshop is endangered. The garnish, it turns out, requires protection as well.

Just this September, the World Conservation Union included several species of caviar-producing sturgeon -- including the European (beluga), Russian, and stellate sturgeons -- on the Red List of Threatened Species, the most comprehensive analysis of global conservation to date. This is grim foreshadowing for the amazing fish, who can grow to weigh more than 1,000 pounds and live well over 100 years. Hundreds of millions of years old, the species predated and has outlived the dinosaurs. With
enthusiasm for caviar -- the sturgeon's unfertilized roe, or eggs -- at an all-time high, the fish today could be decimated by the demands of the fashionable human tastebud.

This holiday season, a time when demand for caviar peaks, will the Red List make any difference in consumers' choices? The risk to the species may be dismissed amid excitement that the United States has lifted its trade embargo on Iranian caviar, which has not been available since 1987. Like the Russian variety, highly prized Iranian caviar comes from the Caspian Sea, a region that produces more than 90 percent of the world's caviar. The decline in the sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea has
been notable since the 1970s, and the number of adult sturgeons is estimated to have declined more than 70 percent between 1978 and 1995. Between 1995 and 1997, catch figures dropped an additional 36 percent.

Today, many varieties of Russian or Iranian caviar can cost more than $100 per ounce, a rate connoisseurs seem ready and willing to pay. And with their dollars they will support fishing and poaching practices that earn an "R" rating for violence. To obtain the roe, fishermen beat the sturgeon
on the back of the head, tear open her belly, and remove the sack of eggs. There is no efficient, inexpensive way to remove the eggs without killing the fish. Traditional fishing operations sell the sturgeon meat for human consumption, mostly in Europe; poachers simply discard the fish flesh after taking the roe.

One female can produce hundreds of pounds of roe. One record-size beluga sturgeon who weighed 2,200 pounds produced nearly 400 pounds of caviar. Sturgeons who produce the most commercially desirable caviars -- beluga, osetra, and sevruga -- have become threatened with extinction primarily because of the growing illegal trade. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, poaching for these varieties in the Caspian Sea has become commonplace. In the frenzy to cash in on the caviar craze, poachers have hooked, netted, and killed many male sturgeons as well as females not yet of reproductive age, leaving the carcasses to rot. Because of their late sexual maturity, which can occur as late as 25 years for beluga females, indiscriminate killing is a serious threat to the species.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), international law enforcement agencies report that the illegal wildlife trade is second only to the illegal drug trade in volume and profit. The agency estimates that the total trade in caviar is around $125 million, more than half of which is illegal.
According to the New York Times, caviar experts estimate that this year's legal yield will be around 160 tons from all producing countries.

Following an investigation initiated by the USFWS, a Maryland caviar importer agreed earlier this year to pay a $10.4 million fine for smuggling illegal caviar into the country and passing off domestic roe as Russian caviar. The fine is the biggest ever in a federal wildlife case. But even with efforts by the U.S. government and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect the sturgeon, including checks by wildlife inspectors for valid CITES permits and even DNA analysis to
confirm the species of origin of a given shipment, buyers still stand to be bamboozled by bogus beluga. And more importantly, whether or not their contents are poached or smuggled, caviar tins will never qualify for the cruelty-free label.

Overfishing and poaching of sturgeon will stop only when consumer demand for caviar stops. This holiday season, when selecting a delectable treat or a gift for someone who has everything, pass up the caviar. In this fish story, the only happy ending for the sturgeon is, well, no ending.

Beth Geisler, a writer and activist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a regular contributor to

“Reprinted with permission from The Animals’ Agenda, P.O. Box 25881,
Baltimore, MD 21224; (410) 675-4566;”
Email: [email protected]

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