NRDC Sues U.S. for Failure to Protect Endangered Beluga Sturgeon

Ban on Beluga Caviar Trade is Key to Species' Survival

NEW YORK (April 25, 2002) -- The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today filed suit in federal district court in Manhattan against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its failure to list beluga sturgeon -- the source of coveted beluga caviar -- as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If beluga sturgeon is listed as endangered, all imports of beluga caviar into the U.S. would be prohibited. The United States consumes roughly 80% of beluga caviar exports.

"Beluga sturgeon are on the brink of extinction, largely due to the demand for beluga caviar," said Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the NRDC. "We are literally killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," she said. "A ban on beluga caviar imports into the United States will reduce the pressure on beluga sturgeon and improve its prospects for survival."

Sturgeon of the Caspian Sea -- the cradle of world caviar production -- are in crisis. The global caviar market has placed a premium on sturgeon, prompting overfishing and illegal trade. Other major threats to the species include habitat loss and pollution.
"Once again, the government is dragging its feet on a critical conservation issue," said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney at NRDC "Once again, the environmental community has had to sue the government to get it to do it's job."

Caviar Emptor, a coalition of NRDC, the Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2000, asking that beluga sturgeon be declared an endangered species. Under the Endangered Species Act, the government has 90 days to issue a preliminary finding and 12 months to decide whether the proposed listing is warranted. To date, the government has failed to issue either of the required findings.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to act follows a decision last month by an international wildlife trade commission to permit the resumption of international trade in Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar, including beluga caviar, an action conservation groups condemned. NRDC, Wildlife Conservation Society and SeaWeb have called for a halt in trade of beluga caviar, large reductions in trade of other Caspian Sea caviars, and more international funding to help Caspian states improve sturgeon fisheries management, enforcement and habitat protection.

Although beluga caviar can sell for more than $100 an ounce, the demand for this luxury item is surprisingly strong. The United States imported more than 33,000 pounds of beluga caviar in 2000. The Caviar Emptor campaign advises consumers who wish to continue eating caviar to make a better environmental choice by buying U.S. "aquacultured" or farmed caviar.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Caviar Emptor

Related Websites
Seaweb's Caviar Emptor site and report