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Europe awash with illegal caviar


15 Dec 2005, Gland, Switzerland – A thriving illegal trade in caviar across Europe is pushing many sturgeon species in Asia and Europe towards extinction, says WWF, the global conservation organization, and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

According to data reported by EU Member States and Switzerland, almost 12,000 kg (12 tons) of illegal caviar were seized by European authorities between 2000 and 2005. Germany topped the list (2,224kg), followed by Switzerland (2,067kg), the Netherlands (1,920kg), Poland (1,841kg) and the UK (1,587kg).

“We fear that quantities of illegal caviar are much higher than official statistics due to the covert nature of the trade,” said Stephanie Theile, TRAFFIC’s Europe Programme Coordinator. “European governments have been delaying implementation of a universal caviar labelling system which identifies the origin of the so-called “black gold” and will help to combat the thriving illegal trade.”

The illegal caviar trade ranges from private individuals selling jars of caviar at open air market stalls to well-organized smuggling operations, with paid couriers picking up suitcases pre-packed with black market roe for delivery to customers.

According to WWF and TRAFFIC, trucks or vans are also often used to bring consignments into Western Europe. Investigations by German Customs in March 2005 revealed that two businessmen were responsible for smuggling more than 1.4 tonnes of caviar into the EU market in a single year.

“With end of year celebrations approaching in many parts of the world, we urge consumers to be vigilant and only purchase caviar from well-established retail businesses and to respect the legal limit of 250 grams,” said Gerald Dick with WWF’s Global Species Programme. “We hope that by this time next year, all consumers in Europe can be confident that the caviar they buy is legally obtained and traded, and they are not contributing to an illegal trade that is driving species to extinction.”

A universal labelling system for the trade in and identification of, caviar was introduced within the remit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and governments all agreed to comply with and implement these requirements by January 2004.

But governments in Western Europe have been slow to meet these requirements, making it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal caviar. A new EU Regulation implementing the caviar labelling system is to come in force in early 2006. Everybody from caviar importers and exporters, to wholesalers and retailers in Europe must be made aware of the new labelling requirements, say WWF and TRAFFIC.

Many sturgeon stocks are seriously depleted as a result of illegal fishing and trade. Besides the illegal caviar in international trade, considerable volumes of caviar are also consumed domestically in the countries of origin, such as the Russian Federation. The majority of this caviar is from illegal sources.


• All 27 sturgeon species were listed in CITES in 1998 and since then international trade in caviar and other sturgeon products can only take place with the relevant permits.

• Under the CITES caviar labelling system, all caviar products need to incorporate non-reusable labels sealing the container and containing information such as the source of the caviar, its country of origin or re-packaging, the code of the processing plant or CITES permit numbers. This would not only apply to exported and re-exported caviar shipments, but also to all caviar tins, jars and other primary containers sold to the public in retail outlets in domestic markets.

• Around 60 per cent of the caviar that is traded legally each year is imported by western European countries. Most of the caviar in the European market comes from Iran and the Russian Federation, the world’s largest exporters. The annual retail value of the global caviar trade is likely to be as high as several hundred million Euros, with 100g of the exclusive Beluga caviar costing as much as €600 for example.

• TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of WWF, the conservation organization and IUCN - The World Conservation Union.


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