Monday, April 19, 2010

Will A Harvesting and Fishing Moratorium Save the Beluga Caviar?

In the past, harvesting and hunting moratoriums have saved a good number of species from the brink of extinction. Will a well-enforced one eventually save the beluga sturgeon?

By: Ringo Bones

In a Time magazine interview back in 2003, Lisa Speer, senior policy analyst for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and a spokeswoman for a surgeon-hugging coalition that calls itself Caviar Emptor said that: “People are going to have to live without beluga caviar for a while if we are going to have any hope of rescuing the species”. Fortunately, a good number of species of this planet which are formerly on the very brink of extinction had been saved via a well-enforced moratorium when it comes to their harvesting and hunting. But will a well-enforced moratorium on beluga caviar harvesting and / or fishing, trade and consumption – given the difficulty of enforcing it due to relative lawlessness of the Caspian Sea region – be enough to save the beluga sturgeon from eventual extinction?

Even though Americans swallow as much as 80% of the world’s production of beluga caviar, US-based environmental groups have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service as far back as the late 1990s to put Russian and Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon on the endangered species list. CITES – the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of flora and fauna – had also since recognized the precarious position of the beluga sturgeon as a species as far back as 1997. Both moves would undoubtedly affect the global consumption beluga caviar that had gained ever-increasing popularity in the post-Cold War era Capitalist West due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union and intensified globalization.

It is not only the increasing demand that’s driving the price – and thus hastening the extinction – of beluga caviar. Acipenser husso – the scientific name of the Caspian Sea sourced Russian beluga sturgeon that is the source of beluga caviar – in other words, the world’s best caviar – are under enormous pressure for sometime now. From overfishing, intensified dam construction during the past 50 years and not to mention pollution caused by the former Soviet republics and other nation-states that use the Caspian Sea as a free sewage system. Worse still, most species of sturgeon are in decline – some types by as much as 90% - and those native to the Caspian Sea are especially doomed unless steps are taken to replenish fish stocks. Like the establishment of beluga sturgeon hatcheries and a well-enforced moratorium on the fishing and harvesting of beluga caviar, not to mention the establishment of an effective clean-up program of the increasingly polluted Caspian Sea and its tributaries.

One aspect of the problem of restoring the beluga sturgeon population is of the nature of the beast itself. Chondrosteans – the class in which sturgeons and its relatives like the paddlefish belong – dates back to more than 400 million years ago around the Devonian Period. Are lucky just to be around today due to the stiff competition that they faced in the name of more “evolved” classes of fish during the reign of the dinosaurs. Clad in bony plates, sturgeons are fierce looking and some can even grow to enormous lengths – up to 6 meters from snout to tail and can easily weigh more than a ton.

Unfortunately, sturgeons mature slowly and some don’t begin reproducing until they are 15 to 25 years old. Worst still, when a female Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon does start ovulating and starts producing more than a million eggs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the US, the result of her fecundity usually results in a death sentence via caviar harvesting. Which can be a very wasteful way to eat Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon via caviar. The carcasses of the mature female sturgeon are seldom – if ever – eaten once the roe is harvested for caviar processing. If you ask me, it is about as wasteful as consuming shark fin soup.

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