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US Bans Beluga Caviar Imports To Protect Caspian Sturgeon

Caviar derives from the small grey or black eggs of sturgeon, a species that dates back to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Washington (AFP) Sep 29, 2005
The United States said Thursday it was suspending imports of highly prized beluga caviar after complaining of inaction by Caspian Sea states such as Iran and Russia to protect endangered sturgeon.

The suspension, which takes effect Friday, applies to beluga caviar exports from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service said the Caspian states had benefited from an exemption to the Endangered Species Act of 2004 to continue exporting the sought-after delicacy to the United States.

The countries, which account for 90 percent of trade in beluga caviar, were given until September 6 to say how they are conserving stocks of sturgeon fish and so continue to benefit from the exemption.

"To date, the Service has not received any of the needed information from these countries," the US federal agency said.

"As a result, beluga sturgeon caviar - including products containing caviar, such as cosmetics - and (sturgeon) meat from the Caspian Sea basin are no longer eligible for the exemption provided by the special rule," it said.

"The trade suspension can be lifted if Caspian Sea countries submit the information required under the special rule."

Caviar derives from the small grey or black eggs of sturgeon, a species that dates back to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

But if they were plentiful once, Caspian levels of the fish have dwindled by 90 percent in just two decades and they are now protected by the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Iran, which controls about half of the Caspian Sea caviar market, has been credited by CITES for leading initiatives to conserve sturgeon stocks.

But Iranian officials and environmentalists say that since the Soviet Union's demise, poachers and smugglers in other Caspian littoral states have turned the sturgeon trade into a free-for-all.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's action does not apply to caviar and flesh harvested from less desirable species of sturgeon such as osetra, sevruga and domestic white.

But the beluga strain is the undisputed king of the species, and its roe fetches prices fit for royalty. Premium beluga caviar from Iran retails for well in excess of 5,000 dollars a kilogram (2.2 pounds).

Beluga's rarity has given rise to a thriving black-market trade. Russian police last month broke up a caviar smuggling ring in St. Petersburg and seized about half a ton of the roe valued at 400,000 dollars.

The US agency said it was still reviewing documents received from Black Sea countries that also harvest beluga sturgeon, such as Georgia and Serbia. It has not reached a decision on whether they are complying with the exemption rule.

The suspension on Caspian exports applies not only to commercial shipments but also to individual travellers. Until now, passengers have been able to enter the United States with up to 250 grams of beluga caviar for personal use.

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