Moreover, many fear the outcome when offshore oil drilling starts in the Caspian in earnest. By most estimates, some 200 billion barrels of oil--about $4 trillion worth--lies beneath the Sea. Before 1991, the Soviet's did little to develop these reserves, choosing instead to focus on their established Siberian wells. But now oil companies from every continent are scrambling to drill offshore wells and are laying down pipelines to transport oil and natural gas to the eager markets of Europe and Asia. This new "oil rush" is likely to further contaminate this shallow sea.
Ichthyologists report that many sturgeon already show signs of poisoning and disease. These fish have no natural prey, thanks to their bony exterior. But few these days are living to complete their normal lifespan of 150 years; although beluga have been known to grow up to 1.5 tons, the average catch now weighs in under 100 pounds.
Image: TRAFFIC INTERNATIONAL
Perhaps more alarming is the problem of overfishing. Faced with economic hardship, many people living around the Caspian have resorted to poaching. Only Iran maintains a state monopoly over the industry. Elsewhere it is often described as a free-for-all. When Russia tried to crack down on poaching in 1996, a bomb killed 67 border guards and their families in Dagestan. In May last year, a police official working to curb the illegal caviar trade was murdered.
To be sure, the finned "living fossils" are fast money. A single fish can carry more than $500 worth of caviar, and there is no shortage of demand. The oldest European caviar trading company, Dieckmann & Hansen, estimated that the international market for black caviar in 1995 was 450 metric tons--220 shy of the legal production in Russia and Iran combined. And figures from the U.S. Commerce Department show that caviar imports have shot up 100 percent since 1991.
Sadly, the sturgeon are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because it takes them some 15 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Only adult females yield the oily treasure, but poachers--often with large nets--indiscriminately take males and youths too.
Nor are poachers careful to discriminate among species, which creates problems for those trying to enforce laws and conservation programs. In a 1996 paper in the journal Nature, Rob DeSalle and Vadim J. Birstein of the American Museum of Natural History described a new method based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for identifying sturgeon species. Traditionally, dealers have gone by size, color, smell and texture alone.
When DeSalle and Birstein analyzed 23 lots of caviar bought primarily in gourmet food stores in Manhattan, they found five mislabeled tins. In three cases, a threatened species had been marked as one in less danger. This month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a campaign against illegal caviar imports, and the group hopes to make information on the PCR technique available through the Internet so that consumer groups can run their own tests to spot illegal imports. Even so, the only future for sturgeon may be in captive breeding programs.