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Project Throws a Lifeline to Beluga

With the sturgeon on the brink of extinction, scientists use satellite tags that they hope will provide key information to help protect the fish.

July 02, 2006|Bagila Bukharbayeva | Associated Press Writer

ABOARD THE NEPTUNE ON THE CASPIAN SEA — Three men struggle to lift a squirming 6 1/2 -foot gray fish with a pointy nose and jagged spine and spill it into the Caspian's green water. Off it swims with two others, all trailing satellite receivers wired to their dorsal fins.

Thus begins a pilot study that scientists hope will yield valuable information about a species of sturgeon hearty enough to have survived from prehistoric times but now on the brink of extinction due to the insatiable appetite of the well-to-do for caviar.

If the three beluga sturgeon can avoid poachers' nets and their data can be successfully retrieved, the University of Miami's Pew Institute for Ocean Science will tag more of the fish for the first comprehensive study of the beluga population in this Central Asian sea.

A worldwide study released by the Pew Institute last year said most major sturgeon fisheries were catching 85% fewer fish than at their peak in the late 1970s. It called for a ban on fishing for most endangered species and a reduction of fishing pressure on others.

Beluga, whose roe is reputedly the world's most expensive delicacy, is the most threatened species of sturgeon. And the population in the Caspian -- which provides 90% of beluga caviar -- "got hammered very fast," said Phaedra Doukakis, a Pew Institute research scientist.

"The peak and decline was very rapid," she said.

There is no reliable estimate of how many Caspian beluga remain.

According to the Pew Institute, there were about 375,000 in 2001, 55,000 of them adults.

That year, scientists from Russia and Iran -- the countries that benefit most from the beluga caviar trade -- came up with a figure of 9.3 million. In 2002, they estimated more than 11 million.

Doukakis dismissed those figures as "a fantasy." Scientists widely criticized the estimates; Russia and Iran have not issued any numbers since.

Beluga, the largest fish in the Caspian, can live more than 100 years and grow to nearly 20 feet. But these days few survive longer than 20 years.

In Kazakhstan, one of the five nations ringing the Caspian, Akhat Nimatov, director of a state-run sturgeon hatchery that works with the Pew Institute, said the beluga population had declined 70% over the last 15 years.

He said fishermen were catching on average one egg-bearing female to seven males. The males are either thrown back into the sea or sold for their flesh.

The U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which sets sturgeon fishing quotas each year, imposed a ban on taking sturgeon and exporting caviar from the Caspian this year after the surrounding states failed to submit a convincing plan to protect the fish.

The Persian species concentrated in Iranian waters was exempted from the ban because it was not endangered.

Doukakis said the ban would not help because the U.N. treaty had no tools to implement its rules and because "there seem to be enough outlets for illegal trade or a big enough domestic market."

The caviar trade is so lucrative it makes poaching hard to resist and control. One female beluga produces up to 17% of its total weight in caviar. A pound of beluga caviar costs on average $2,700 in Europe and North America.

The damage from legal fishing also is significant. The Caspian sturgeon was first put under heavy pressure during the Soviet era. But the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse didn't make things better as the emergence of three more states on the Caspian shores -- Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan -- has meant fragmented regulation.

Another serious concern for sturgeon stocks is environmental stress from the oil boom in the northern Caspian, an area where sturgeon migrate in summer to fatten in shallow waters and spawn in Kazakhstan's and Russia's Ural and Volga rivers.

With the Soviet collapse, Western companies have moved in to work those oil and natural gas fields.

The globe's biggest oil project now underway is in the northern Caspian, where an international consortium, Agip KCO, is preparing to start commercial oil production at the giant Kashagan field in Kazakh territorial waters.

Agip KCO is the main sponsor of the Pew Institute's Caspian sturgeon research, providing a grant of "a few hundred thousand dollars," Doukakis said.

The satellite tags, which have been used for about 10 years for tracking other fish species, will be gathering data on the beluga's migration habits and information on the depth and light level where it travels.

The microphone-shaped 7-inch tags -- costing $3,400 each -- are attached at the Kazakh state hatchery in Atyrau, where beluga that have been caught are brought to lay eggs and then freed again.

The tags are programmed to drop off the fish, one after another, at three-month intervals. The tag floats to the surface and transmits its data to a satellite.

The data could help define the beluga's preferred areas, which could then be turned into protected zones, said Daniel Erickson of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, an expert on satellite tagging. It will also define beluga habitat in relation to oil drilling.

"I'm thrilled," Doukakis said. "Now we have to sit and wait."

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