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Caviar and the Caspian Sea

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD Int. Law
The Caspian Sea is the main body of water in the world that contains a large numbers of Sturgeons, the fish that its eggs are publicly known as Caviar. Caviar apparently means eggs. Therefore, sometimes we hear about the Caviar of eggplants and other things, which mean a meal made of the egg-like substances.  However, the most common and well-known meaning of Caviar is: "the unfertilized roe [eggs] of certain fish species. The term Caviar is mostly used to identify roe from sturgeon species and 90% of the world's caviar originates from the Caspian Sea." (1)
The sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that has been around for 250 million years, surviving since the time of, and outlasting, the dinosaurs. The sturgeon is bottom-dwellers, with sensitive barbells and pointed snouts, scale-less except for five rows of large, pointed, plate-like scales running along the top and sides of the body. Sturgeon is anadromous, meaning that they live in saltwater but return to freshwater to spawn. Twenty-four major species of sturgeon still exist, living mainly in the Caspian Sea. Sturgeon can live to be over 100 years old and can grow to weigh over 3,000 pounds. (2) Beluga Sturgeon: Large sized, can measure up to 4 meters in length and weighs up to 1000 Kg. Yields about 15% of its weight in caviar. Asetra Sturgeon: Medium sized, 2 meters long, can weigh 200 Kg. Sevruga Sturgeon: Small sized, max. 1.5 meters long, rarely weighs over 25 Kg.
The Persian Dictionary of Amid has described Caviar as: " a word from Russian origins, meaning the roe of a kind of 'Sagmahi', that the French call it sturgeon." (3) Also, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia says: " eggs, or roe of sturgeon preserved with salt. Most true caviar is produced in Russia and Iran from the fish taken in the Caspian Sea and Black sea.  In the USA, the roe of salmon, whitefish, lumpfish, paddlefish is sometimes sold under the name of caviar." (4)
References to caviar in literature and art date back almost as far as the sturgeon itself. Some claim it was the Turkish who first coined the word "Khavyar" from which the English term "caviar" originates. Others suggest the term "caviar" comes from a Persian word. The Persians considered caviar to be a medicine for a multitude of illnesses, and would eat it in stick form to give them energy and stamina. In the 1240s the first written record of the word "Khavyar" was found in the writings of Batu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan), while the word first appeared in English print in 1591.  Medieval English society also held the caviar-producing sturgeon in the greatest respect. (2)
Transforming the roe of sturgeon into the marketable caviar " involves removing the eggs from a female that is ready or nearly ready to spawn, gently rising the mature eggs and adding a small amount of salt." (1)
The sturgeon has a history of being over-fished, at times almost to the point of extinction, and in the case of some species, beyond that point. The precarious position of the sturgeon was recognized in 1997 by the Standing Committee of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES was agreed upon at a March 3, 1973 meeting of representatives of 80 countries, and became enforceable on July 1, 1975. CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. These require that all import, export, re-export and introduction from the sea of species covered by the Convention have to be authorized through a licensing system.
In 1997, at the 10th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES in Harare, Zimbabwe, the Committee decided to regulate the international trade in sturgeon, and included all 23 species of the Acipenseriformes in Appendix II, the list of species "not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival." (The sturgeon was not placed in Appendix I, a list of species threatened with extinction, the trade of which is permitted only in exceptional cases). As of April 1998, CITES has set limits on the amount of sturgeon and sturgeon products that can be sold internationally, and all such products, including caviar, must have a permit when being traded commercially.
In 2000, at their 11th meeting, the Committee recommended "the introduction of a universal system for caviar labeling to help identify legal caviar in trade and curb poaching and illegal caviar trafficking. And in June of 2001, at their 12th meeting in Paris, the Committee went so far as to threaten the Caspian Sea range states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) with a complete ban on all caviar and sturgeon product exports unless "they implemented a series of time-sensitive measures designed to stem the alarming depletion of sturgeon stocks in the region.  Iran, was allowed to continue exporting without CITES limitations, as the country strictly controls the sturgeon catch in its waters.
In their 13th meeting in Geneva, on March 15, 2002, the Standing Committee agreed to lift the temporary ban on caviar and sturgeon products exports imposed on the range countries in June 2001. The Committee's Secretariat approved the range countries' plan to regulate fishing, and set new quotas.
For some environmental groups, including "Caviar Emptor", an association of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Sea Web, the Committee's decision to lift the export ban is a huge mistake. Caviar Emptor argues that scientific evidence, such as the low number of mature adults being caught, shows the beluga is almost extinct. (2)
In 2003 CITIES allowed littoral states of the Caspian Sea to export nearly 147 tones of caviar.  Iran had the right to export 78.8 and Russia 30.3 tones.  (5)
 Traditionally, only two nations of the world have been major caviar-exporters: the former Soviet Union and Iran.  Iran re-launched its world-renowned caviar trade a decade after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In the first year after the Shah's departure, caviar was taboo and religious zealots prohibited its consumption.  The sturgeon appeared to be anti-revolutionary and it was thought not to have any scales, which are needed by the Islamic rules to make it "halal", i.e. acceptable under Islamic law for consumption.  The moratorium on sturgeon fishing lasted until 1982, when the mullahs of Iran discovered it did, in fact, have some scales.  Following this "discovery", the Islamic theologians gave the blessing to caviar.
On February 18, 1992, the five countries signed a letter of understanding to form an organization to exploit the Caspian marine resources.  Iran and Russia are the largest exporters of caviar and have formed a joint cooperation to help protect and conserve the caviar. (6)
The total Caspian caviar production for 1996 was expected to be 270 tones, with most destined for the international market. In the CIS, there has been a shift from local to foreign markets, while Iran has increased the volumes of its caviar exports yearly and now exports about 95 per cent of its production. Current domestic consumption within the CIS is estimated to be only about 100 tones yearly compared to an average of 1800 tones in the 1980s. The major import markets for caviar from Iran and the CIS are the European Union (EU), Japan, the USA and Switzerland. These markets imported annual averages of 200 tones, 100 tones, 70 tones and 65 tones, respectively, between 1988 and 1994. During this period, the EU imported roughly half of all Caspian caviar produced but exported approximately 24 per cent of this amount to other countries.
Among EU countries, Germany was the main importer (85 tones per year), but it re-exported approximately 45 per cent of its imports to other European countries and the USA. France, where pressed caviar can retail for up to US$600 per kilo, is the largest EU caviar consumer with 80 tones imported yearly and 60 tones consumed on its domestic market. The UK (20 tones per year) and Belgium (20 tones per year) follow Germany and France in importance as importers of Caspian caviar.  Japan accounted for about 16 per cent of all Caspian caviar exports from 1991 to 1994, importing 45 to 57 tones per year. It imported more caviar from the CIS than from Iran during this period.  The USA receives 70 per cent of its caviar imports from Russia. While the USA has a commercial embargo on trade with Iran, some 500 kilos of Iranian caviar have entered the USA since 1991 via imports from France, Switzerland and more recently Dubai. Dubai is emerging as a re-exporter of Caspian caviar largely because of the efforts of one company, which handles approximately 15 tones of caviar a year. UAE re-exports caviar to Europe, USA, Australia and countries in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  Switzerland serves as a center for caviar imports and exports within Europe and consistently consumes eight tones of caviar on its domestic market annually.
Caviar is illegally exported from Russia, or may be repacked and falsely labeled in Eastern Europe before appearing on European retail markets. In Germany, this type of caviar sells at a fraction of the usual price. In one case, caviar that should retail at US$700 per kilo was sold for as little as US$150 per kilo.  Illegal trade in caviar from Iran is rare according to Iranian government officials, but smuggling of caviar from Iran into Dubai appears to be a common route. Bulk quantities of caviar are said to be transferred from Bander Anzeli in the Caspian Sea to Bander Abbas in the Persian Gulf, where small boats then transport it to Dubai. In CIS countries, Caspian caviar produced from poached sturgeon is said to be smuggled aboard cargo ships visiting French, Belgian, Danish or German harbors.
More often, particularly in the case of CIS states, illicit traders simply use false documents to mask the poached origin of their product or its unauthorized preparation and packing. Falsification of documents relating to country of origin may also be used as a ploy to gain a better price because Iranian caviar fetches higher prices than that of CIS origin. While methods for identifying species of origin have not been standardized, five of 23 caviar samples bought in the USA in 1995 and 1996 were found to be mislabeled.  (7)
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared beluga sturgeon to be "threatened with extinction" in April 2004, and it will issue a final decision on trade restrictions for the delicacy in early 2005. This listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act could result in a ban on beluga caviar imports to the United States, the world's largest foreign market for the delicacy.
A ban would be good news for the beluga sturgeon, whose population has declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years. The sturgeon must be killed for caviar production, and global demand for its eggs has prompted over-fishing and rampant illegal trade. The United States, which in past years has imported about 60 percent of the world's beluga caviar, is the major source of that demand, and a prohibition on imports would significantly reduce pressure on the fish. The beluga can take 15 years to reach reproductive age and can live to be 100, so it is vital that the long road to recovery begins immediately. Scientists and fishermen who live in the Caspian region agree.
The process to list beluga sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act was initiated in December 2000 when Caviar Emptor, compelled by overwhelming scientific evidence of the fish's perilous status, submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.
Better protection for beluga sturgeon can be welcome news for caviar lovers. In addition to ensuring that beluga caviar will be around for future generations, there is also an opportunity for consumers to try the growing selection of great tasting and eco-friendly American caviars. Caviars made from farmed sturgeon and paddlefish in the United States are winning over the discerning palates of chefs and connoisseurs alike. (8)
When an animal species suddenly appears in a new environment, the consequences can be grim. While some species may quickly die off, others thrive in their new surroundings, often to the point of posing a threat to the existing ecological order. Such is the case with Mnemiopsis leidyi, a fist-sized jellyfish that has spent the past decade menacing the waters of the Caspian Sea. The invasion of Mnemiopsis leidyi, or Leidy's Comb Jelly, has caused the Caspian's fish stocks to plunge.  The watery invader has a voracious appetite, devouring much of the Caspian plankton that provides the sprats' main sustenance. Furthermore, Mnemiopsis reproduces at an alarming rate. It can double its size in a single day, reach maturity within two weeks, and then lay as many as 1,200 eggs a day for as long as several months.
Mnemiopsis made its Eastern debut two decades ago, in the Black Sea, after being transported from the U.S. Atlantic coast in the hull of a ship carrying ballast water to maintain its stability. When the ship emptied its ballast water, the jellyfish began its feast on Black Sea plankton, causing a more than 80 percent decrease in fish stocks there.
The arrival of a second American jellyfish, Beroe ovata, marked an important change in the late 1990s. The newcomer began dining on Mnemiopsis, causing its almost immediate decline, and allowing a resurge in the Black Sea's valuable anchovy stocks.
But Mnemiopsis once again began to travel, and showed up in the Caspian Sea in 1999. This time the culprit is believed to have been the ballast water of a boat shipping through the Volga-Don canal linking the two seas. A decline in plankton quickly followed. In 2000 alone, scientists estimated that Caspian sprat stocks had decreased by 50 percent.
Could the Beroe ovata once again prove the solution? Hossein Negarestan works for the Iranian Fisheries Research Organization in Tehran. He told RFE/RL that studies have been conducted on the safety of releasing a second jellyfish species into the Caspian. As long as the process is handled carefully, he said, it should not create any new ecological problems. All five Caspian states now have to endorse the introduction of the Beroe ovata to the sea. It is an expensive and technically difficult process. (9)
The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) offered the Caspian countries of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Turkmenistan an ultimatum: Halt sturgeon fishing or face a ban on exports of black caviar to rich and hungry Western markets.  The only Caspian country exempted from the ban threat is Iran, which is considered by CITES to practice effective conservation and policing of its fisheries. But Iran is a small player in the caviar business, with an annual harvest one-seventh the size of Russia's.  Still, experts say legal harvesting is probably the least of the forces that have driven the Beluga sturgeon, which resembles a chainsaw with fins, to the brink of extinction. The damming of the Volga River spawning grounds 40 years ago, pollution, poaching, and drilling connected with the Caspian oil boom have been far more destructive. (10)
Overwhelming evidence would suggest that the sturgeons' main enemy is not pollution but rather over-fishing. An estimated 90% of sturgeons are killed before they are mature enough to reproduce and the number of sturgeons returning to the Volga River each year has, reportedly, declined three-fold since 1991. Ironically, the rise in the Caspian's water level may ultimately help the sturgeon as it may dilute some of the pollution, and bring greater numbers of fish as a food source to their habitat. However, this possibility is laced with controversy. Some biologists believe the benefits of a higher sea level will be negated by a rise in the toxins washing from the factories' and towns' accumulated wastes, including oil field spillage into the Caspian Sea.
a. A ban on poaching must be enforced vigorously by all countries.
b. There has to be a serious agreement between the countries and autonomous regions now surrounding the Caspian in regard to fair quotas that will benefit everyone.
c. Open sea fishing should be banned to prevent killing young, immature fish. Sturgeon caught in the rivers while returning to spawn contain on average 14% body weight in caviar while those caught in the sea contain about 3%. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia need to formalize the initial quotas regarding Russian Volga River caviar, which Russia proposed to split among the three nations. Such action would eliminate Azerbaijan's and Kazakhstan's needed to capture the sturgeon in the Caspian.
d. Industrial pollution flowing into the Caspian must be reduced to a minimum.
e. Future oil drilling both onshore and offshore must conform to the cleanest standards. (11)

1)    What is Caviar, CITES World, official newsletter of the parties to the Convention on International trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Issue No. 8, Dec.2001, pp. 8.


3)    Amid Farsi Dictionary (in Persian), by Hassan Amid, Amir Kabir Publications, Tehran 1373.

4)    Merriam-Webster Collegiate Encyclopedia, USA, 2000, page: 304

5)    Novesti, Russian News Agency, 03/04/2005 


7)    Sturgeons of the Caspian Sea and the International Trade in Caviar,





About the author: Bahman Aghai Diba is a Senior Consultant for the World Resources Company in the Washington DC



... Payvand News - 5/21/05 ... --

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