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Time runs out for illegal caviar trade
Bangkok, 13 October 2004 - Delegates at the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP13) have agreed policies that should greatly reduce the opportunities for unscrupulous traders to smuggle caviar obtained from poached sturgeons into the international markets.
In a move that has been welcomed by bona fide traders and sturgeon range States, delegates overwhelmingly voted to place time limits on the international trade in caviar.
Until now, traders in illegal caviar were able, through fraud and forgery, to declare that their product was caught during previous years and avoid the annual quota limits set by CITES. They exploited a loophole that allowed sturgeon range States to carry over remaining stocks from the year of harvest and used this to convince the authorities that they had not already exported all their products. These declarations having been accepted, traders then process fresh caviar obtained from sturgeons that have been caught by poachers and 'launder' it into international markets where it fetches high prices.
CoP13 delegates decided that the caviar processed in 2004 must be exported by 31 March 2005. From 2006 onwards, all caviar must be exported in the same year that it is produced; there will be no opportunity to 'carry over' stocks from one year to the next. In addition, there can be no re-exports of caviar more than 18 months in age; another loophole that illicit traders have used.
In a meeting on the sidelines of the Conference, Caspian Sea countries invited experts from the CITES Secretariat to join a working group of the Commission for Aquatic Bioresources of the Caspian that will draft a regional action plan to combat poachers and illegal traders.
"This is a major victory in the war against the caviar criminals," said CITES Deputy Secretary-General Dr Jim Armstrong. "Abuse of the quota system has been a very significant problem recently, particularly when we have been unable to publish annual quotas until late into the year of harvest. For example, the figures for 2004 have only just been agreed but we know that fresh caviar is available in the markets of Europe, which is being sold under the guise that it was harvested in 2001, 2002 or 2003. Alongside the time limits that have been set, CITES has also agreed that annual quotas must be published by 31 December in the preceding year. This will bring stability to the caviar trade and close the door on the criminal opportunists who have engaged in large-scale fraud."
The trade in sturgeon products, especially caviar, has a long history of criminal involvement and there are close links with organized crime groups. Fishery protection officers in the Caspian Sea regularly face violence from poachers and CITES officials have met staff who have had hand grenades thrown into their patrol vessels by poachers wishing to avoid arrest.
Note to journalists: For more information please call the CITES press office in Bangkok at +66 4 098 7621 or email juan.vasquez [at] unep.ch or michael.williams [at] unep.ch.
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