Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kootenai Sturgeon Conservation: A Model for Saving the Beluga Caviar?

As one of the success stories of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s species conservation program, will the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon restocking program be used to save the beluga caviar?

By: Ringo Bones

Unlike that of the beluga sturgeon’s home waters where the fish has to contend with the threat of pollution and overfishing, the white sturgeon - scientific name: Acipenser transmontanus - in the continental United States has only faced one major threat during the past 40 years. Namely the extensive dam construction of its river ecosystem. Since the construction of the Libby Dam a little over 40 years ago the white sturgeon’s natural habitat had been slowly – but drastically altered – during the past decades. The Libby Dam held back the vital spring floods that cleared the silt accumulation in the Kootenai River, depriving the white sturgeon of its ideal spawning conditions. Hence the slow but inevitable decline of the species.

Enter the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program in the state of Idaho. Listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as one of their success stories when it comes to species conservation drastically affected by changes in its ecosystem. Back in September 6, 1994 when the US Fish and Wildlife Service as placed the Kootenai River white sturgeon in their endangered species list, the Kootenai Tribe had already initiated the Kootenai River White Sturgeon Study and Conservation Aquaculture Project four years before. Part of the Kootenai Tribe’s program to save the white sturgeon was to preserve the genetic variability of the population when they started rebuilding the natural age class structure with hatchery-reared sturgeon, and prevent its extinction while measures are implemented to restore the natural production of the species.

Even though the program is an unqualified success, it looks like the Kootenai River white sturgeon are now dependent on human intervention – like the Kootenai Tribe’s sturgeon restocking program – due to the dam’s effects on the river ecosystem. But is this method viable when used to save the dwindling beluga sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea region?

The Russian or beluga sturgeon – scientific name: Acipenser husso – has been heading to extinction not only ever since many caviar connoisseurs swear that it has the best caviar - hence the overfishing - but also of the extensive dam construction of its native river habitat and pollution. Consuming its eggs as a delicacy – from my perspective even though I indulge in it from time to time – is about as wasteful as fining sharks and throwing the carcasses overboard just for the shark fin soup. But given that sturgeon roe – especially beluga caviar – is a very lucrative commodity, wouldn’t it be better if we intervene through establishing a beluga sturgeon hatchery program to bring the numbers back up?

Given the success of the Kootenai Tribe’s restocking program, it does seem viable that using such methods, the number of beluga sturgeon could be increased to numbers that its survival as a species would not be threatened. Despite extensive commercial roe harvesting. But given that there are now very few Russian sturgeon or beluga sturgeon around, will this ever involve caviar-fishing / caviar harvesting moratorium like the one planned on blue-fin tuna by CITES this year?

Maybe a fishing moratorium will play a part in bring back up the beluga sturgeon population, but it will be very hard to enforce given that the Caspian Sea is surrounded by other nations beside Russia. Like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran. All of them have varying commercial interest in commercial caviar harvesting. Just imagine the red tape involved? And given that the various rivers in the Caspian Sea region that have served as a vital spawning ground for the beluga sturgeon, namely the Volga River, the Ural River and Kur River are now full of dams. Human intervention in the form of fish hatcheries – similar to that in the Kootenai Tribe’s white sturgeon conservation program - might be a necessity in order to keep the beluga sturgeon from going the way of the dodo.

Even the writing team in the world of Star Trek were optimistic enough to foresee through conjecture that beluga caviar had survived well into the 24th Century. Like the fictionalized account of an episode in Star Trek: the Next Generation where Captain Jean-Luc Picard served beluga caviar to a visiting high-ranking Klingon official. Is this reason enough to be hopeful over the long-term future of the beluga caviar?

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