Stocks of sturgeon, known in Russia as the Tsar fish, have collapsed since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union as poachers and criminal gangs spirit the delicate eggs from the Caspian Sea to gourmet diners across Europe, Asia and the United States.
Shady traders routinely visit offices in Moscow to sell illegal black caviar, even though Russia has banned exports since 2002 and only allows sales of about 9 tonnes of wild black caviar on the home market each year.
The Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggest that 85 per cent of sturgeon are at a very high risk of extinction in the wild. It classified 17 of the 27 sturgeon species as critically endangered.
“This is the last chance. There is no time left. These fish are at death’s door,” said Professor Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York.
“Sturgeon are just one step away from being extinct in the wild,” Pikitch told Reuters from Doha where the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species met in March.
Most of the sturgeon left in the wild spawn in the rivers that flow into the Caspian, a region dominated by Iran and Russia.
The Russian tsars created a monopoly for the sale of caviar and the Soviet authorities kept tight control over the business.
In the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, the sturgeon was left largely at the mercy of rampant poaching and rising pollution.
“The situation with sturgeon is simply catastrophic,” said Alexander Savelyev, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Fishery Agency. “The sturgeon is on the edge of extinction.”
“We are proposing revolutionary measures, including strict state control over caviar sales,” he said.
The statements follow a joint study by US and Kazakh scientists of the Ural River which flows into the Caspian and where tens of thousands of sturgeon once spawned.
It showed fishing catches are four to five times higher than levels that would allow the Beluga sturgeon to simply survive at today’s vastly reduced population levels.
Some species, such as the Beluga sturgeon which produces highly prized, delicate grey caviar, have seen a 93 per cent decline in catches, according to researchers.
The Beluga can grow to more than 5m long, weigh up to a tonne and sometimes live for more than 100 years. Caviar can make up about one ninth of a mature female’s body weight.
Illegal black caviar sells in Moscow markets for about US$1,400kg and was advertised for sale on some European internet sites for about US$5,000kg.
Russia is pushing Caspian nations such as Iran – which dominates the market for black caviar – to agree later this month to a 10-year ban on sturgeon fishing to save the sturgeon.
“Sturgeon have survived dramatic change over the past 250 million years only to face the serious threat of becoming extinct as a direct result of human activities,” said Mohammad Pourkazemi, chairman of the IUCN’s Sturgeon Specialist Group.
“Illegal catch, over-fishing, the breaking up of the migratory routes and pollution are the key elements that have driven almost all species to the brink of extinction,” he said in a statement.