updated 10/22/2004 8:24:35 AM ET 2004-10-22T12:24:35

The government has temporarily decided against reducing or banning imports of prized beluga caviar, despite having agreed to list the beluga sturgeon six months ago as a species whose survival is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said its decision Thursday took effect immediately.

The action fell short of the ban sought by environmental groups who had petitioned the agency. But officials plan to revisit their “interim special rule” by following it up with a final rule in January, after the elections.

The United States imports about three-fifths of the world’s beluga caviar, but that trade has dropped from 80 percent in just the past several years.

The biggest exporters this year will be Romania, with 7,500 pounds of caviar, and Kazakhstan, with 5,190 pounds. Legal exports of beluga caviar are overseen by the Switzerland-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

Fish and Wildlife officials said their decision was meant to “allow trade in products derived from threatened beluga sturgeon as long as that trade is consistent with” CITES regulations.

Mitch Snow, a spokesman for the agency, said “this is just a continuation of what is currently going on” to allow officials to respond to public comments.

After pressure from CITES in 2001, exports of Beluga caviar and other sturgeon products were suspended for nine months from most of the Caspian region, only to resume in March 2002, despite strong protests from environmentalists. Since then, CITES has imposed annual quotas on caviar exports, but environmentalists argue these actions have done little to slow the sturgeon’s decline.

“Basically what they’re doing is deferring to inadequate international controls that have failed to halt the decline of beluga sturgeon,” said Lisa Speer, a senior policy analyst in New York with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “It’s another nail in the coffin of this remarkable fish.”

Fish and Wildlife was responding to legal action by a U.S.-based environmental coalition, Caviar Emptor, that had petitioned the service in December 2000 to declare beluga sturgeon an endangered species. The coalition has sought a long-term ban on the international trade of beluga caviar to protect the beluga sturgeon from extinction.

NRDC sued Fish and Wildlife in 2002 to force the agency to respond to the petition.

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