Caviar Detective Work Kicks Off –

Caviar Detective Work Kicks Off European Fish Trader Published:  01 August, 2003

LAST week, under the approving gaze of Kazakh officials, two scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society tagged 231 baby beluga sturgeon in a first step towards solving one of the Caspian’s thorniest questions: Which fish does each country have a right to call its own?

“We want to know where our fish go,” said Adilgeri Kairalapov, director of a hatchery on Kazakhstan’s Ural River that each year releases more than 1 million baby beluga into the sea.

When the tagged fingerlings return to spawn in the Ural 15 years from now and are caught, the ID tags will help scientists calculate how many of the original stock survived.

Kazakhstan today legally exports about 6 metric tons per year of beluga caviar, while Russia’s quota — based on the contribution of its own hatcheries — exports less than 2 tons. Iran exports nearly 3 tons of caviar from what Kazakhstan and Russia say are beluga born in their hatcheries.

Beyond exports, the statistics for the total catch are staggering: Scholars estimate that illegal fishing amounts to 10,000 tons of sturgeon annually, compared with the official combined catch in 2001 of just 650 tons by Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Beluga caviar retails in the West for $3,000 per kilogram, making it the world’s most valuable wildlife commodity. In Russia, where illegally fished beluga is widely sold, it sells for $200 per kilogram — 15 times less.