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Caviar Emptor - Educating the Consumer

sturgeonPIs: Drs. Ellen Pikitch and Phaedra Doukakis, Institute for Ocean Conservation Science

Caviar Emptor was an award-winning, highly successful seven-year campaign that directly resulted in a U.S. ban on most beluga caviar imports, which took effect in Fall 2005. The campaign utilized science, media outreach, and policy initiatives to influence the U.S. government to list beluga sturgeon as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2004, a bold action that paved the way for the importation ban.

Experts from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science (previously known as the Pew Institute for Ocean Science), Sea Web and the National Resources Defense Council and collaborating organizations were driven by the urgent need to conserve dwindling populations of beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) and other Caspian Sea sturgeon species. Sturgeon from the Caspian region remain in sharp decline due to the combined effects of overfishing – sturgeons must be killed to harvest their eggs and process them into caviar – as well as habitat degradation and pollution. Ninety percent of the Beluga sturgeon population has disappeared in just 20 years, with much of their spawning grounds destroyed. The Caspian Sea region includes Russia and Kazakhstan and is the source of most of the world’s caviar.

Intensive public education was an essential component of the Caviar Emptor campaign. Caviar consumers were urged to choose responsibly by purchasing environmentally friendly caviar derived from farm-raised sturgeon rather than eating the eggs of an endangered species. The campaign also encouraged international funding for science-based fishery management, improved enforcement of illegal sturgeon fishing, and helped start scientific research programs in the Caspian region. Institute scientists tagged beluga sturgeon to track their migration and use of the Ural River, the belugas’ last stronghold in the Caspian region. The Institute developed key working partnerships with officials and scientists in Kazakhstan in an effort to improve the state of information about beluga sturgeon.

Caviar Emptor ran from 2000-2007, and was honored by the Public Relations Society of America with the Silver Anvil Award. The award symbolizes “the forging of public opinion” and is given annually to an organization that has successfully addressed an issue with exemplary professional skill, creativity and resourcefulness. Though the campaign has officially concluded, Institute scientists continue to push for reductions in the amount of sturgeon and caviar exported from Caspian Sea states. These “export quotas” are reset annually by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the quantities permitted each year nearly always surpass sustainable levels. (See “Caspian Sea Sturgeon Conservation” project description for further details on these projects).

The Institute is simultaneously working with the U.S. government to formally ask CITES to categorize beluga sturgeon as Endangered (Appendix I). Since international trade is prohibited for species listed on Appendix I, this would provide beluga sturgeon with a chance to recover rather than continue the march to extinction. Though beluga were listed by CITES as Threatened (Appendix II) in 1998, their numbers have continued to decline and the beluga fishery continues to be improperly managed.

More information

Read timeline of key activities related to protecting endangered beluga sturgeon

Learn more about the Institute’s comprehensive assessment of the state of the world’s sturgeon fisheries

Ellen Pikitch, PhD's bio


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