Scientists in the United States have issued a report warning that sturgeon -- the fish that is highly prized as the source of caviar -- is in danger of extinction unless urgent steps are taken to save it. The Pew Institute for Ocean Science in Miami, Florida, says sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Amur River, and around Siberia have been devastated by over-fishing. But conservationists say there's still time to save the fish -- provided governments take action now.
Sturgeon must rate as one of the most expensive food-providing creatures on earth. A kilogram of the female sturgeon's eggs can cost the gourmand up to $5,200.
The eggs, of course, are caviar, and the finest caviar of all comes from the Beluga sturgeon, which lives mainly in the waters of the Caspian and Black Seas.
The continued world demand for Beluga and other caviars naturally has consequences for these strange-looking fish, which are often called "living fossils" because they have come down to us virtually unchanged since prehistoric times.
Sturgeon stocks are continuing to decrease alarmingly, and a report just issued by scientists in the United States says that new protection measures are urgently needed if the fish is to survive.
Ellen Pikitch, director of Miami University's Pew Institute for Ocean Science, says sturgeon catches worldwide are down 85 percent, and 19 of 27 types are already locally extinct.
The Beluga are the hardest hit, with massive illegal fishing adding to pressure from legal exports.
Caroline Raymakers is a regional director of an organization called Traffic, which monitors trade in endangered species. She says enforcement of existing laws is one of the great difficulties in the Caspian region.
"Laws are very difficult to enforce, because it is hard to have [guard] patrols on the sea, everywhere and at all times," Raymakers said. "So as long as you do have these very poor economic conditions around the Caspian Sea, it's very difficult to struggle against poaching."
Raymakers says one of the greatest problems to improving the situation is corruption, which she says reaches "very high levels" in certain countries, which she did not name.
But further help for the Beluga is at hand. The United States has drawn up new regulations under which Beluga imports will be banned unless exporting countries submit clear evidence that their fish stocks are being managed to ensure sustainability.
That's important because the US market takes some 60 percent of all Beluga exports.
The European Union is also helping. Under a two-year Caspian basin assistance program, it is organizing three meetings in Iran in October to coordinate management methods in the preservation effort.
Riparian states Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran have been invited to the main meeting. International nature and conservation organizations will also attend.
"It's a meeting which will bring around the table all the representatives from the different countries of the Caspian, to talk about a plan for sturgeon [preservation] plus actions required: everything -- politics, trade, fisheries, local communities, plus scientific assessment of stocks and so on," Raymakers said.
Meetings organizer Nick Willoughby told RFE/RL from Baku that the main meeting, set for October 10-13 in Ramsar, will be a "regional workshop."
"There will be five working groups, looking at the practicality of advancing a whole range of activities, ranging from [fish] stocks assessment to the eventual creation of a regional management plan," he said.
The Ramsar plenary meeting will be preceded by a "national workshop" in Tehran on October 6-9 to be attended only by officials from the EU and Iran. They are due to discuss the same issues in detail bilaterally.
And it will be followed by a third meeting, back in Tehran on October 15-16, to assess what was achieved.
Sturgeon, which can grow to five meters in length, are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing and habitat destruction because of their slow reproduction cycle. Some types take 25 years to reach sexual maturity, and many females reproduce only every three or four years.