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 vegan.com.
“Reprinted with permission from The Animals’ Agenda,
P.O. Box 25881,
Baltimore, MD 21224; (410) 675-4566;
Go on to Vibrating
Collar For Deaf Dogs
Return to 21 March 2001 Issue
Return to Newsletters
** Fair Use Notice**
This document may contain copyrighted material, use of which has not been
specifically authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this
not-for-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the
copyrighted material (as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright
Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your
own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright