The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) announced this week that it will not publish 2006 export quotas for caviar until exporting countries provide more information about the sustainability of their sturgeon catch.
"Countries wishing to export sturgeon products from shared stocks must demonstrate that their proposed catch and export quotas reflect current population trends and are sustainable," said CITES secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers.
"To do this they must also make full allowance for the amount of fish caught illegally."
Illegally produced caviar is devastating sturgeon stocks, and putting at risk a delicacy that has become a by-word for decadence in the west. Recent information from sturgeon-exporting countries bordering the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea/lower Danube River, and the Heilongjiang/Amur River on the Sino-Russian border indicates that many of the sturgeon species in these shared fishing grounds are suffering serious population declines.
In 2001, CITES responded to high levels of poaching and illegal trade in the Caspian Sea - which accounts for some 90 per cent of world caviar trade - by agreeing to a temporary ban. A ban was also placed on caviar exports from Caspian region countries last year, and the Russian government has said that it plans to set up a state monopoly to control the caviar industry in the region and raise prices.
Russian authorities believe that for every registered 1,000 tonnes of caviar, there is 12-14,000 tonnes placed on the black market.
The 169 member countries of CITES have set strict conditions for permitting caviar exports. Countries sharing sturgeon stocks must agree amongst themselves on catch and export quotas based on scientific surveys of the stocks.
They must also adopt a regional conservation strategy. With the agreement of the sturgeon range States, the rules on how to set quotas were made even more rigorous in 2004.
Importers such as the European Union also have important obligations. They must ensure that all imports are from legal sources, and they must establish registration systems for their domestic processing and repackaging plants and rules for the labelling of repackaged caviar.
The UN says that many key importing countries have still not put these measures in place.
"Governments need to fully implement the measures that they have agreed to ensure that the exploitation of sturgeon stocks is commercially and environmentally sustainable over the long term," said Wijnstekers.
The CITES Secretariat says it remains hopeful that the exporting countries will supply the missing data that may allow international trade to resume. However, since the CITES system only allows sturgeon products to be exported during the year in which they are harvested and processed, it says that it is currently not possible to export caviar from shared stocks.