The New York Times by Christopher Pala & Florence Fabricant

Sep 1, 2004

The New York Times

September 1, 2004

World's Caviar Faces a Ban


THE United Nations agency that controls trade in endangered species has halted exports of caviar until the countries where it is produced comply with an agreement to protect sturgeon, an official of the agency said yesterday.

The main exporting countries, those that border the Caspian Sea, have failed to provide an accurate measurement of how much much sturgeon is illegally harvested, the official, Jim Armstrong, deputy secretary general of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, said in an interview at the agency's headquarters in Geneva. The countries had not complied with a conservation agreement signed in 2001. It took affect this year, and the agency has not issued new permits since January.

As a result of the ban, the legal supply of Caspian caviar in the United States — the osetra, beluga and sevruga that sells for up to $3,000 a pound in the West — is likely to dry up once the 2003 harvest is consumed. Prices are already rising.

International trade in the world's 20-odd varieties of sturgeon has been regulated by the agency since 1998, after a drastic rise in poaching. Last year, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan exported 150 tons of beluga, osetra and sevruga caviar from the Caspian.

The agency has also frozen much smaller exports of those species from the Black Sea; of Amur River sturgeon from China and Russia; of Canadian sales of four Great Lakes varieties to the United States and even of American exports of paddlefish roe to Japan.

The agreement, which was signed in 2001 and came into force this year, does not affect the international trade in caviar taken from farmed sturgeon, a tiny but fast-growing industry in California, France and Italy. Nor does it affect domestic markets, including that in Russia, where most illegal caviar is consumed.

Exporters cannot legally ship caviar without a permit from the agency. In the United States, the Customs Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service check incoming shipments for the necessary export permits and other paperwork.

Officials of the United Nations agency do not believe that there is much illegal sturgeon fishing in Iran, the other major exporter of Caspian caviar, but as a signer of the 2001 agreement it is subject to the ban.

Dr. Armstrong said the illegal trade in Russia may be so great that there might not be any legal quotas issued in the foreseeable future if the total catch was counted accurately.

He also said the reasons for denying the export quotas outside the Caspian Sea varied. For the Great Lakes sturgeon, he said it was because the United States and Canada had failed to submit a joint management proposal.

All the high-quality fresh beluga, osetra and sevruga in importers' warehouses is from the 2003 catch. Paramount Caviar in Long Island City, Queens, received some 2003 Iranian two weeks ago and Hossein Aimani, the owner of Paramount, said he has enough caviar on hand to tide him over through the holiday season.

Fresh caviar, when properly cured and then shipped under refrigeration and stored at about 29 degrees Fahrenheit, has a shelf life of about 18 months. The expiration date on tins of 2003 Iranian osetra that Rod Mitchell of Browne Trading in Portland, Me., received last week is May 2005.

But plenty of black-market caviar is available in this country, as well as caviar that may have been frozen or is two or even three years old. Caviar listings on eBay show unbelievably low prices, like $34 for four ounces, for Russian caviar that is best avoided.

Reliable wholesalers who also sell caviar to consumers — like Browne Trading, Petrossian and Paramount, to name a few — are probably the safest sources, in terms of quality and dependability.

Fresh caviar can vary in color from jet to pale gray to gold and even to ivory. The individual eggs can also vary in size, but should be consistent within an individual tin.

They should be glistening and moist, but not soupy or broken, which might indicate that they have been stored poorly or frozen. They should also not be excessively hard or dry, which means they may have been pasteurized or may simply be too old.

A mild sea-breeze aroma is typical, but a strong odor or any offensive smell is reason to reject the caviar.

Chefs say they will make do. "If we couldn't get imported caviar in the restaurant," said Jonathan Benno, the executive chef at Per Se in the Time Warner Center, "we'd probaby use American farmed sturgeon caviar from California."

Some chefs, including Rick Moonen of RM, already rely on farmed American sturgeon roe and roe from other kinds of fish.

Some dealers are trying to be optimistic, saying sources, especially in Iran, expect the agency may soon allow exports of the 2004 catch, and that the delay is due mainly to bureaucratic problems in Russia. But Dr. Armstrong held out little hope for that.

"We had a similar case in Jamaica," he said about poaching. "They had a quota of 1,200 tons of queen conch. When we asked them to take into consideration the poaching by fishermen from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they estimated that was worth 800 tons. So we cut their quota from 1,200 tons to 400 tons, and that gave them the incentive to crack down on the poachers. This year we increased them to 550 tons."

But cutting down on poaching in Russia and Kazakhstan will not be as easy as chasing off foreign fishermen from coastal waters.

In both these countries, according to fishermen, traders and local officials, poaching, negligible during the Soviet period, has become a way of life in the past 15 years of economic upheaval and widespread corruption. Most estimate the illegal catch at many times the legal one.