29 April 2004

Complete Beluga Sturgeon Import Ban Unlikely, U.S. Official Says

Alleged driftnet fishing, tuna-dolphin controversy arises at hearing

By Bruce Odessey
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A U.S. Interior Department official says a complete U.S. ban of imported beluga sturgeon, source of prized beluga caviar, is less likely than different levels of import controls aimed at different countries' practices.

Kenneth Stansell, assistant director at the department's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), indicated in April 29 congressional testimony that the agency would more likely ban imports from countries with poor conservation records and perhaps allow continued restricted imports from countries with better records.

On April 20, USFWS announced it will list beluga sturgeon as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in line with the 1998 listing by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). That CITES listing puts beluga sturgeon in a category that allows controlled trade through a system of permits.

Now found only in the Black and Caspian seas, beluga sturgeon produces caviar reportedly selling for up to $3,200 per kilogram. Annual legal trade in beluga caviar is estimated at more than $100 million a year, but illegal catch in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan is suspected to be six to 10 times higher.

The USFWS threatened species listing takes effect in about six months. Between now and then, Stansell said, USFWS will develop a rule for conserving the threatened species, which has suffered from overfishing, loss of habitat and poaching. He said the agency will consider any related developments from a June CITES meeting.

Making his remarks at a hearing of a House of Representatives Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, Stansell did not identify which countries were taking better conservation measures than others.

A number of other international fishing issues came up at the hearing.

One issue concerns alleged illegal use of driftnet fishing in the Mediterranean by Moroccan fishing boats. Driftnet fishing is prohibited on the high seas under a 1991 U.N. moratorium. According to David Balton, deputy assistant secretary of state, the U.N. moratorium has been implemented with much success.

The kilometers-long driftnets, called "curtains of death" by opponents, have a devastating impact on marine life, from whales to sea birds as they sweep indiscriminately through the sea.

Balton said in his testimony that Morocco's alleged violations would face scrutiny at the November meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The U.S. Department of Commerce is investigating the allegations and ultimately under U.S. law could impose trade sanctions on Morocco for any violations.

Balton said bilateral measures could be considered if no resolution is achieved at the ICCAT meeting, scheduled in New Orleans in 2004. He mentioned that Mediterranean fishing poses special challenges because water defined as high seas start only 12 miles offshore there, compared with the 200-mile zones in the world's oceans.

He cited as an example of success Italy's closing of its driftnet fisheries in the 1990s under pressure from a European Union directive and potential U.S. sanctions.

The Commerce Department is conducting its investigation based in part on evidence from a World Wildlife Fund scientific study alleging that 177 Moroccan fishing boats using nets with an average length of 6.5-7.1 kilometers -- far in excess of the U.N. moratorium limit of 2.5 kilometers -- are harming threatened sharks, dolphins and turtles.

Another issue that came up was an April 28 news article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which alleged that Commerce Department officials were long aware that supposedly independent observers on Mexican fishing boats in the eastern Pacific were routinely taking bribes to submit false reports about the boats' setting nets on dolphins.

Opponents of the Commerce Department's 2002 decision relaxing requirements for the "dolphin-safe" tuna label argued in the article that any such bribery would undercut the basis for the decision. Before that decision, only yellowfin tuna harvested without setting nets over dolphins could carry the dolphin-safe label on tuna cans. After the decision, the label would apply even if dolphins were netted so long as the dolphins were safely released.

The article cited a 1999 Commerce e-mail discussing reports of such bribery. The article said the newspaper obtained the e-mail from Earth Island Institute, one of the environmental organizations challenging the 2002 decision in court.

For decades fishing boats slaughtered hundreds of thousands of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific by setting nets over them in order to harvest the stocks of yellowfin tuna that sheltered in the ocean beneath dolphins.

Under conservation measures taken under U.S. law with eventual agreement reached in the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), dolphin mortality has plunged about 98 percent, to fewer than 1,500 kills a year, according to William Hogarth, assistant administrator in the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hogarth was the official who made the 2002 decision. He said he would look into the specific case cited by the article, remarking that the IATTC review process on challenges to observers is open and transparent.

The State Department's Balton added that he was "quite worried" about the consequences if a court overturns the 2002 Commerce decision. Many countries that have invested heavily in equipment to protect dolphins with the expectation of selling in the U.S. market under that decision could simply abandon their conservation commitment, he indicated.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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