From: John Heilprin, Associated Press
Published March 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Government Sets Conditions for Importing Beluga Caviar, Proposes Coral Protections

WASHINGTON — The government is setting conditions for trade in beluga caviar, saying exporting countries must give the United States assurances that they can conserve populations of beluga sturgeon.


In a separate action, the government proposed listing two types of coral species, staghorn and elkhorn, as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. It would be the first time any coral species was found needing government protections to avoid extinction.


"Threats to these species include physical damage from human activities and hurricanes, as well as disease and temperature-induced bleaching," said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, a retired Navy vice admiral who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The new regulations for beluga sturgeon also require other nations to meet U.S. standards for aquaculture, or fish farming, to prevent mixing of species by wild and farmed sturgeon, said Kenneth Stansell, the Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant director for international affairs.


Stansell said the aim is to create "a long-term conservation program to encourage recovery of the species."


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The announcement by Fish and Wildlife makes final its decision not to impede U.S. trade in beluga sturgeon, its eggs or its meat. Last April, the agency agreed to list the beluga sturgeon as threatened, a lesser category than "endangered," based on a petition in December 2000 from a U.S.-based environmental coalition, Caviar Emptor.


The agency, however, rejected the coalition's request for a ban on trade in beluga sturgeon. Most of the world's beluga caviar is imported by the United States, usually originating from the Caspian and Black seas.


The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, had sued Fish and Wildlife in 2002 to force the agency to respond to the petition -- which said there had been a 90 percent decline in the fish's population between 1980 and 2000.


Since beluga sturgeon take 15 years to reach maturity, they reproduce slowly and their population is more vulnerable to overfishing, said Ellen Pikitch, a marine scientist and executive director of the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science.


"The idea that this fish could go extinct is not a fantasy," she said Thursday. "The science shows that the best chance for recovery of beluga would have been to give the beluga a complete break, and the decision today fell far short of that."


The regulation taking effect Friday allows U.S. importers to continue to bring in caviar and the meat of beluga sturgeon, but only from nations around the Caspian and Black seas that meet six new standards.


In six months exporting countries will have to show plans and timetables for helping the fish's population to recover, protecting their habitat and setting limits on how many can be harvested.


Trade in beluga caviar is overseen by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, based in Geneva, Switzerland.


After pressure from CITES in 2001, exports of Beluga caviar and other sturgeon products were suspended for nine months from most of the Caspian region. Trade resumed in March 2002 despite protests from environmentalists.


Since then, CITES has imposed annual quotas on caviar exports, but environmentalists say those actions have not slowed the decline in the sturgeon's population.


Source: Associated Press


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