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Overfishing could spell the end of caviar
By Charles Arthur Technology Editor

The Independent

18th September 2003

Beluga caviar, which costs about 2,000 a kilogram (900 a lb) could literally become priceless - because scientists think overfishing will make beluga sturgeon extinct.

Russia, Iran and other states around the Caspian Sea, the beluga's stronghold, were allowed this month to harvest up to 155 tonnes of the fish a year.

The decision - by Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - was based on sturgeon numbers growing from 7.6 million in 1998 up to 11.6 million last year.

But New Scientist magazine today says critics of the decision think there could be fewer than half a million fish - and Cites' own raw data hints stocks fell 40 per cent in 2002.

"Cites is using unreliable data without any review," said Vadim Birstein, a Russian sturgeon geneticist, "and expects us to believe [the fish] have performed a miracle."

Scientists think sturgeon stocks have fallen about 90 per cent since the 1970s, mainly due to overfishing and an illegal trade by Russian mafia, worth about 500m, that threatens the fish's survival.

Cites' estimate of sturgeon numbers is made by scientists in Astrakhan, based on a trawl of the Caspian and assuming that 10 to 24 fish escape for every one caught, and multiplying that by the volume trawled.

But Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Washington DC said UN and US fisheries researchers assume at most one fish escapes for each caught - hence a far smaller estimate of 500,000.

Cites said its model was justified by previous research, but agreed the data was "contradictory" and that scientists did not agree on its interpretation.

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