Caviar May Come from Illegal Sturgeon Harvest

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As Valentine’s Day approaches, think twice before adding caviar to your list of romantic treats.

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Some commercial fishermen are illegally harvesting the eggs of mature pallid sturgeon, which poses an environmental threat.

U.S. Geological Survey researcher Phillip Bettoli, PhD, a biology professor at Tennessee Tech University, and his team accompanied commercial fishermen during the state’s 2007 fishing season. They found hundreds of large, mature pallid sturgeon had been illegally harvested in recent years for their eggs, which are highly valued as caviar, according to a report to be published in this month’s Journal of Applied Ichthyology.

“Researchers who have studied pallid sturgeon and sought ways to prevent the species from going extinct have long suspected that illegal fishing was undermining government efforts to save the species,” Dr. Bettoli says.

Commercial fishermen are not necessarily targeting pallid sturgeon, one of the largest and most primitive fish in the Mississippi River basin. Instead, they target the smaller, more numerous shovelnose sturgeon, a closely related species that may be legally harvested for its caviar. Unprocessed shovelnose sturgeon eggs fetch more than $100 per pound, and the processed caviar is then sold for $12 to $21 an ounce.

But the two sturgeon species share some of the same habitats, and they’re notoriously difficult to tell apart in the field. Definitive identification requires DNA analysis or sophisticated statistical models to analyze external anatomy.

“Allowing the harvest of pallid sturgeon to continue is inconsistent with the long-running, extensive recovery efforts undertaken by state and federal agencies stretching from Louisiana to Montana, costing millions of dollars annually,” Dr. Bettoli says.

And during their research trips, his team got a glimpse of a poorly documented phenomenon: ghost nets. These lost nets keep catching and killing fish for years, and they’ve been recognized as a serious threat to sturgeon recovery efforts along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Tennessee sturgeon fishermen admitted that losing nets is not uncommon when fishing the Mississippi River.

Based on these and other findings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is thinking about closing all sturgeon fishing in the Tennessee waters of the Mississippi River under the Similarity of Appearance clause of the Endangered Species Act.

“The pressure to act is increasing because the worldwide demand for caviar is high, as are the prices the eggs fetch,” Dr. Bettoli says. “Domestic and foreign supplies of caviar are shrinking, and pallid sturgeon are still a long way from ever making it off the endangered species list.”

Editor’s Note: OrganicAuthority publishes environmental news so organic consumers have access to the latest information on climate change and other threats. You can view similar posts by visiting the Environment Section of our blog.

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