The World Wildlife Fund warns, the booming trade in illegal caviar is threatening the survival of some sturgeon species. WWF urges people to make sure the caviar they buy for their New Year festivities does not come from illegal sources.
The problem is particularly acute in Western Europe. The director of WWF's Global Species Program, Susan Lieberman, says large amounts of caviar from fish that are killed illegally are smuggled into European countries each year. And, that, she says, is leading to the disappearance and decline of the sturgeon species.
"I am certainly not saying there is anything wrong with eating caviar," she said. "But, there is a major problem with the amount of illegal caviar from poached fish coming into Europe. And, we have found from recent studies that almost 10,000 kilograms, 10 tons of illegal caviar, have been seized by European governments in the past five years. And, we know that more gets in than is actually seized, obviously. So, we are really concerned about the disappearance of the species."
WWF says the most illegal caviar was seized in Germany, followed by Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and Britain.
The conservation organization says the legal caviar trade is worth some $100 million annually, making it one of the world's most valuable wildlife resources. About 85 percent of the legal caviar traded internationally goes to Europe and North America. It sells for as much as $200 an ounce.
No one knows how much money is made from the illegal trade. But, Ms. Lieberman says the amount is huge.
WWF estimates the world sturgeon population has declined by about 70 percent in the past few decades. It reports about half of the 27 sturgeon species throughout the world are threatened, mainly from overfishing for caviar.
Ms. Lieberman says sturgeon from the Caspian Sea in Russia, prized for Beluga caviar, are on the verge of extinction.
"The Beluga can weigh two tons, and can live 100 year," she said. "If they are over-harvested, if they are poached, if the fishery is not regulated and well managed, then the fish cannot recover. We are not saying you should not fish - quite the opposite. We are saying that, as any fish species, it should be used at a sustainable level, so it can be continued in perpetuity. At the current rate of the caviar trade, the fish will not survive in commercial quantities."
Some species are so threatened that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently suspended import and re-export of beluga sturgeon caviar and meat originating from the Black Sea basin.
WWF is calling for a universal labeling system for all caviar to help consumers identify the legal from the illegal. In a cautionary note, Ms. Lieberman says, if the price of caviar is suspiciously low, it probably is illegal.