A 250 million year-old rite continues this week along the Russian rivers feeding into the Caspian Sea: The sturgeon are spawning as they have since the time of the dinosaurs. But this breeding season may be one of their last.
These ancient fish, prized for the unfertilized eggs of the females--that luxury product called caviar--are being devastated by overfishing, poaching, pollution, and industrial development. The World Wildlife Fund reports that the numbers of adult sturgeon in the Caspian plummeted from 142 million in 1978 to a scant 43.5 million in 1994. And scientists now fear that these unique and valuable fish may vanish from the region within five to 10 years.
Image: IRANIAN CULTURAL AND INFORMATION CENTER
Signers of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) officially recognized the crisis when they met in Harare, Zimbabwe last June. Virtually all of the 29 sturgeon species found around the world today are threatened, and many have already disappeared; the American Great Lakes species died out earlier in this century. Those in the most danger, though, are three Caspian breeds--Beluga (Huso huso), Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedti) and stellate sturgeon (A. stellatus). Unfertilized eggs, or roe, from these creatures make up 90 percent of the world's most prized varieties of caviar.
Before 1991, the Soviet Union and Iran--the only two nations then bordering the Caspian Sea--regulated sturgeon fishing rigorously, ensuring a steady supply of caviar and the survival of the sturgeon in the region. In particular, they restricted fishing to the rivers into which the sturgeon return to spawn; taking fish on the open sea, where they mature, was prohibited. Thus, those that were born, or spawned and survived to make it back to the safety of the sea, were likely to return again to the rivers.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed, three new states--Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan--acquired Caspian shores. And these countries have been slow to put similar protective measures in place. (Azerbaijan applied to the CITES treaty only in April of this year--when the state fishery, Azerbalyg, banned black caviar export until they did so.) Increasingly fish have fallen prey to poachers in the past seven years.
Image: J.H. MACBRIDE, Cornell University
At the same time, the fishes ability to survive is being threatened by increasing levels of pollution. Pollution is not a new problem; Russian factories have flushed harmful sewage and industrial waste into the Caspian--a closed body of water roughly the size of California--since the 1960s. But countless new plants cropping up on the Caspian's shores--1,200 or more in Kazakstan alone--have made matters much worse. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, pumps some 250 to 300 million cubic meters of sewage into the Caspian annually. And the country is home to some of the globe's most polluted cities.