Wildlife officials try to beef up scrutiny of caviar quotas to save sturgeon

The global wildlife trade watchdog agreed to beef up its scrutiny of caviar quotas and make the system more transparent steps aimed at saving sturgeon from extinction.

Conservationists expressed disappointment the trade was not reined in even further by the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, which is holding its triennial meeting to review its lists of regulated plants and animals.

"Many scientists had hoped for a stronger set of restrictions on the wild caviar trade, especially for beluga sturgeon, which will not survive the rampant overfishing occurring in the Caspian Sea," said Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science and lead scientist for Caviar Emptor, a nonprofit campaign to protect and restore wild sturgeons.

"The good news is that a system has finally been established that will lift the veil of secrecy off the caviar trade," she said.

Caviar, one of the world's most prized delicacies, is the roe or eggs of sturgeon or paddlefish. Beluga caviar can cost upward of EUR8,250 per kilogram (US$5,000 a pound) depending on taste and quality. High profits have lead to a flourishing black market.

Under a CITES system set up in 2002, countries which catch and sell caviar agree to annual quotas that they send to the organization's secretariat for approval.

Under Thursday's decision, exporting countries will have to send quota proposals to CITES' animals committee which is expected to subject the plans to even tougher scientific scrutiny.

Scientific data supporting the proposals also will for the first time be distributed to any CITES nation that asks for it, increasing transparency, said Phaedra Doukakis, another scientist from the Pew Institute.

In a demonstration of its power, CITES last year refused to issue any export quotas for beluga and nearly all other types of caviar from the Caspian Sea region to help protect sturgeon.

CITES also mandated that export quotas be based on a conservation strategy and cannot be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

Despite CITES' efforts, sturgeon stocks continue to decline, Doukakis said, suggesting that states bordering the sea "are not exercising their responsibility" to look after fish stocks.

"The jury is out on whether this new resolution will save Caspian sturgeons from extinction," said Dawn Martin, president of conservation group SeaWeb. "The fate of sturgeons now rests largely in the hands of consumers, who can choose not to eat the eggs of an endangered species. Caviar connoisseurs can help save this ancient species by switching to farmed caviar, which are of the highest quality and are a better choice for the environment."