A U.N. panel said Monday it has lifted trade bans on beluga and two other types of caviar, effectively ending a year-old embargo against one of the world's most prized delicacies.
Willem Wijnstekers, the head of the U.N.-sponsored conservation body CITES, said countries bordering the Caspian Sea had improved their monitoring of caviar trading and would release millions of young fish into its waters, allowing limited trade to resume.
But he said the decision to grant Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Russia permission to export 4.15 tons of beluga must be accompanied by further moves to combat declining sturgeon stocks.
"The small quota reflects the population trend of the species," said the body responsible for monitoring the 1975 U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Last year CITES refused to provide export quotas for nearly all types of caviar from the Caspian Sea in order to help protect the endangered fish from which the eggs are taken. It began loosening restrictions on some species last month.
Activists: 'Nail in the coffin'
Environmentalists condemned the decision to set new quotas for beluga.
"We view this as another nail in the coffin for this species," Julia Roberson of the conservation group Caviar Emptor told The Associated Press. "The most recent information that we had was that the populations of beluga sturgeon from 2004 to 2005 had declined by 45 percent, so it's very irresponsible of CITES to be reopening trade."
David Morgan, chief scientific officer at CITES, agreed that the population decline was worrying, but said the Caspian countries had improved their approach in the last year and, ultimately, "it's the countries concerned who are responsible for the resources on their territory."
"Coming up with a precise number of fish in the sea is not easy," he told The AP. "But every indication is that populations are going down. Whether it's 45 percent or other figures is open to debate."
Last year's ban on caviar exports from the countries representing 80 percent of the global trade led to a loss of income for fishing communities, and a shortage of caviar in high-end delicatessen stores around the world. Beluga, which can cost upward of $5,000 a pound depending on taste and quality, was hit especially hard.
CITES eased restrictions on three other types of caviar in January, saying it was satisfied that countries had taken adequate steps to monitor and preserve sturgeon numbers, but held off on publishing export quotas for beluga.
At the time the U.N. panel said the income earned from the sale of sturgeon products throughout 2007 "should provide both an incentive and the means to pursue the long-term recovery of this commercially and ecologically valuable natural resource."
Monday's announcement will also permit China and Russia to export about 3.5 tons of Amur sturgeon roe and 4.6 tons of Kaluga sturgeon roe caught in the Heilongjiang-Amur river basin shared by both countries.
U.S. still restricts
CITES' decision, however, may not have an immediate impact on beluga in the United States, where authorities have set their own restrictions on imports from wild stocks.
Seafood chef Rick Moonen said he was against putting Caspian caviar back on the menu.
"CITES wasted this chance to save an ancient and truly remarkable fish, so now I call on seafood professionals around the globe to boycott beluga caviar and try farmed caviar instead," Moonen, who runs the New York restaurant "rm," said in a letter to the conservation body. "It may be the only hope this fish has for survival."
The Geneva-based CITES previously imposed a ban on caviar trade from the Caspian Sea for one year starting in 2001, but allowed sales to resume the next year because of rising sturgeon stocks.
While CITES sets strict conditions for permitting exports, countries sharing fishing grounds must agree among themselves on catch and export quotas based on scientific surveys of the stocks.