After two decades of plummeting numbers, Caspian Sea sturgeon will finally get a reprieve from the pressures of overfishing. This September, the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) halted the global trade of most caviars.
“The CITES ban on caviar exports is a very positive sign, and it must be sustained in order to reverse the beluga sturgeon’s long-term slide towards extinction,” says Dr. Ellen Pikitch, professor and executive director of the University of Miami’s Pew Institute for Ocean Science.
This is the first time CITES has refused to approve fishing quotas for Caspian sturgeon since the UN began monitoring the trade in 1998. Caspian states must reach consensus on the division of basin-wide quotas and consider the effects of illegal fishing before CITES will lift the ban.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Caviar Emptor, and other environmental groups fighting to preserve the sturgeon scored another victory earlier this year. In April, US Fish & Wildlife Service listed beluga sturgeon as “threatened with extinction,” giving it protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The situation for sturgeon in the Caspian Sea is dire. Overfishing, pollution, and loss of habitat are pushing this long-lived fish, which has survived virtually unchanged for millions of years, to the brink of extinction. Populations of beluga sturgeon, which produce the most prized caviar, have plummeted by an estimated 90 percent over the last 20 years.
“Sturgeon are living fossils,” says Pikitch. “While their long history illustrates the fortitude of wildlife, it has also taught us a valuable lesson about how easily an ancient species can be lost from the face of the planet.”
For caviar-craving connoisseurs, sustainably farmed American white sturgeon can provide an eco-friendly—and legal— substitute to the endangered fish’s eggs.