"Caviar Emptor: Let the Connoisseur Beware"

Campaign to Protect Critically Endangered Beluga Sturgeon and other Threatened Sturgeon Species Announced by Leading Environmental Groups

WASHINGTON (December 6, 2000) - Caviar, long a symbol of luxury, is emerging instead as a sign of environmental mismanagement as Caspian Sea sturgeon populations -- source of much of the world’s caviar -- plummet.

In response to the triple threat to sturgeon posed by overfishing, habitat loss and pollution, three leading environmental groups today announced a campaign to protect and help restore the world’s remaining sturgeon populations. The initial focus of the groups’ recommendations is on beluga, Russian and stellate sturgeon from the Caspian Sea, which produce the vast majority of the world's caviar.

"Caviar Emptor," the new campaign unveiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and SeaWeb, today released Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery. The report details the threats facing Caspian Sea sturgeon, particularly beluga, and the steps needed to achieve recovery.

The campaign will file a formal petition this week asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list beluga sturgeon as an endangered species, which would halt importation of beluga caviar into the United States. In addition, the campaign will encourage the U.S. government to pursue an international ban on trade of beluga caviar at a meeting of an expert committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which convenes next week to review global trade in various sturgeon species.

"Overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and poor regulations have collectively driven this species to the brink of extinction," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, director of marine programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. "Demand for caviar has driven the market value for this fish through the roof while at the same time cutting their life expectancy in half. Beluga sturgeon are nearing the point of no return," she added. "These ancient fish have survived the disappearance of dinosaurs from the planet, but will they survive us?"

The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal poaching around the world. Moreover, sturgeon are a slow-growing species, so it is easy to quickly overfish a population and it can take decades to recover.

Caviar Emptor proposes a number of actions that the U.S. government, international governing bodies, and consumers can take to prevent further decline, including promoting alternatives such as environmentally sound, farm-raised caviar.

The United States accounts for roughly one-third of the world’s caviar imports. It is also the second largest importer of beluga and Russian caviar in the world, importing about 28,000 pounds of beluga caviar in 1999. Therefore, the campaign recommends that the U.S. government take a series of actions, including:

  • Promote an international ban on all beluga caviar trade;
  • List beluga sturgeon as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act;
  • Pursue greater international funding for efforts to protect and restore Caspian Sea sturgeon;
  • Strengthen U.S enforcement of international trade restrictions on caviar imports;
  • Support environmentally sound aquaculture as an alternative to wild sturgeon caviar; and
  • Strengthen state management of U.S. sturgeon species, which may come under increasing fishing pressure as Caspian Sea species decline.

To help restore beluga populations, world governments must stop the international trade in beluga caviar and increase funding for key programs and initiatives needed to protect and restore all Caspian Sea sturgeon.

"We are killing the goose that lays the golden egg," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the NRDC, referring to beluga sturgeon. "This is a true conservation emergency that will require concerted action on the part of consumers, the U.S. government and the international community to prevent the extinction of this extraordinary fish."

Consumers can play an important role in restoring the species by buying less caviar, and not buying beluga. Caviar should be an item limited to only the most special occasions, and if consumers do choose to eat it, they should buy more sustainable alternatives. North Star Caviar, Yellowstone Caviar and caviar farmed in the United States are among the better available alternatives.

"While caviar is perceived to be a luxury item and connotes a certain status, it’s important for consumers to make wiser seafood choices and recognize that it is certainly in ‘bad taste’ to eat anything that is in such severe environmental decline," said Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb.

Copies of Caviar Emptor’s report Roe to Ruin: The Decline of Caspian Sea Sturgeon and the Road to Recovery are available online at www.caviaremptor.org.