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WOE IS ROE* (*fish eggs)
Southeast at Risk of Losing Caviar-Producing Fish Populations

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Some say it’s delicious. Some say it’s disgusting. Many say it’s disappearing, along with the sturgeon and paddlefish that produce those perfect pearls of nature, caviar.

And if you think this is strictly a problem for fish and fisheries in a faraway land, think again. As sturgeon populations approach depletion in the Caspian Sea - where the majority of the world’s caviar originates - the once-prolific sturgeon is being sought in other waters -- ours.

Since the mid-1970s, increased regulation and reduction of Caspian sturgeon stocks have put growing pressure on North American sturgeon, stocks which are already affected by loss of habitat and domestic commercial fishing. Once considered a less-than-lucrative commodity, North American sturgeon stocks now supply 30 percent of world’s production of caviar, with prices rising accordingly -- from $50 to $70 a pound in recent years to more than $500 today.

Southeastern rivers and streams, which World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has identified as one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, contain five of the world’s species of sturgeon. Without intervention to stabilize these sturgeon populations, they are at serious risk of extinction due to a combination of habitat alterations, pollution and fishing pressure.

“You don’t have to travel deep into the Brazilian rain forest, climb the highest peak of the Himalayas, or take a jungle safari in Africa to see some of the most biologically rich wonders of the world,” said Constance Hunt, senior program officer for WWF. “Unless we take measures to protect southeastern rivers and streams, ancient species like sturgeon and paddlefish will suffer the same fate as the dinosaur.”

She added that Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama collectively have more of their aquatic species at risk of extinction than all other states combined. Without intervention, the Southeast is on the brink of a fish extinction crisis.

Concern for North American caviar-producing fish will be the topic of a symposium on May 7 and 8 sponsored by World Wildlife Fund’s trade monitoring program TRAFFIC North America, the Southeast Aquatic Research Institute and the Tennessee Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. Representatives from state and federal agencies, trade experts, interested non-governmental organization representatives, importers/exporters, fisheries industry representatives and members of the academic community will address harvest, trade and conservation issues for the US and Canada from all sides.

“People didn’t nickname the paddlefish ‘Chattanooga Beluga’ for nothing,” said Dr. George Benz, chief research scientist at the Tennessee Aquarium. “Unknown to many caviar consumers, some tinned Russian caviar is actually North American caviar that has been shipped to Russia for packaging. We have a keen interest in sturgeon and paddlefish survival for a number of reasons.”

Considered “living fossils,” sturgeon are one of the oldest types of living bony fish on earth, with known fossil remains dating more than 250 million years ago. Sturgeon are generally long-lived and therefore particularly vulnerable to fishing pressures because they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 6 to 25 years of age, depending on the species.

“World sturgeon populations have already declined as much as 70 percent this century,” said Andrea Gaski, director of research for TRAFFIC. “Although their bony exterior keeps the sturgeon well-protected from attack by non-human predators, refuge from the human is another story.”

Fortunately, as of April 1, all sturgeon species worldwide are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The new rules require all caviar imported to or exported from the US to have valid CITES export permits - a seal of approval showing it’s not the product of caviar bootleggers. Batches of caviar will also be DNA-tested by Wildlife Service workers to check for its point of origin.

According to TRAFFIC North America, although protection under CITES provides a stronger international regulatory mechanism for the import and export of caviar, it may not be enough. “Consumers should stay away from black-market caviar and demand the CITES permits on any caviar they buy,” said Gaski.

World Wildlife Fund, known worldwide by its panda logo, has for 35 years led international efforts to save life on earth. Between now and the year 2000, through the Living Planet Campaign, WWF will engage the global community to take bold action on behalf of the world’s wildlife and wild places.

TRAFFIC North America is the wildlife monitoring program of World Wildlife Fund and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. Built with private contributions, this non-profit educational organization is dedicated to the understanding, conservation and celebration of aquatic habitats. For more information, call 1-800-262-0695.

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