Things aren't looking good if you're filthy rich and fancy a bit of black caviar; the IUCN have officially reclassified the Beluga sturgeon as â€œCritically Endangered".
In fact it’s not just the Beluga that has been highlighted as at risk from extinction, in total there are 27 species of sturgeon on the IUCN’s Red List, 63% of these are listed as Critically Endangered and four species are already thought to be extinct.
Overfishing and habitat degredation has affected all of the commercial species on the Caspian sea with the IUCN listing all species endangered.
Dr Phaedra Doukakis, member of IUCN's Sturgeon Specialist Group and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University is quoted on the IUCN website:
"It’s time to seriously consider ending fishing in the Caspian Sea region and in other areas where species are classified as Critically Endangered," and says: "While these new rankings are depressing, they are also a call for action."
Besides the dubious way in which caviar eggs have been historically harvested - from live females which are then discarded overboard - the fate of the sturgeon seems particularly sad. These fish are known as living fossils having been around for 200 million years. They have a life span of over 100 years and take anything from 9- 20 years to reach sexual maturity.
Despite the fact that some money is now being put into farmed sturgeon and even methods of harvesting the females without killing them, it is estimated by the Russian media that anything up to 90% of the fish caught in the Caspian Sea is illegal.
Certainly of the 400 tonnes of caviar traded every year only 300 tonnes of that has been ‘officially’ caught. At present catch rates are thought to be 4-5 times higher than would sustain the population.
The IUCN wants to stop the illegal trade of these fishes and also put a strict limit on the fishing of female sturgeons which will then lead to the increase of the species as anticipated.
It is not surprising that there is such a trade in these fish.
A number of websites come up, with a quick internet search, that sell a kilo of 'Private Reserve' beluga caviar for what works out as nearly £12000. 'Golden Almas' caviar from sturgeon that are at least 80 years of age costs over £6000 for just 250g. A single female can hold over 2 kg of roe alone.
In addition to the Beluga, Russian, stellate, Persian and ship sturgeon have also suffered declines due to overfishing as well as habitat degradation in the Caspian Sea region.
Away from the Caspian Sea, the Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius), one of only two paddlefish in existence is now considered Critically Endangered and possibly extinct and the Russian Far kaluga, a sister species of beluga, and the Amur sturgeon (Acipenser schrenckii), are both now classified as Critically Endangered yet still face some commercial exploitation.
Dr Kent Carpenter, IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment Director said "This widespread evidence of decline alerts us to the fact that despite protective fishing regulations, sturgeon are still in trouble due to historic fishing, current illegal fishing and habitat degradation."
Dr Carpenter presented the IUCN’s findings to the CITES meeting on the 18th March, luckily for the sturgeon no votes were taken.