The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) formally announced the reclassification of beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea as "critically endangered" on its Red List on March 18, providing strong evidence that fishing and international trade should be halted and a stock-rebuilding plan should be initiated immediately. Beluga sturgeon populations have been decimated in part due to unrelenting exploitation for black caviar -- the sturgeon's unfertilized eggs -- considered the finest in the world.
"For those of us who have been involved in studying the rapid decline of this species over the past several decades, this reclassification of beluga sturgeon is of great significance and relief," said Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Professor and Executive Director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. "However, of even greater significance is the IUCN reclassification of many sturgeons, which shows them to be among the most imperiled animals on earth. A higher percentage of sturgeon species were designated as critically endangered than any other group of species assessed, including other fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants."
Dr. Pikitch has led scientific efforts to highlight the seriously depleted status of the beluga sturgeon and to secure protection for the species for more than a decade. Dr. Pikitch was one of the petitioners of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) seeking listing of the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Beluga sturgeon were listed under the U.S. ESA in 2004, and imports of its products into the United States have been banned since 2005.
The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University contributed significant new scientific information on several species of sturgeon to the newly released IUCN Red List sturgeon assessment. Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Executive Director, and Dr. Phaedra Doukakis, Senior Research Scientist with the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science are members of IUCN's Sturgeon Specialist Group (SSG).
They recently co-authored, along with other U.S. and Kazakhstani scientists, the results of a study of Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon of the Ural River. The results, which were published online this month in the journal Conservation Biology, suggest that conservation strategies for beluga sturgeon should focus on reducing the overfishing of adults rather than heavily relying upon hatchery supplementation and also demonstrate that current harvest rates in the fishery are four to five times higher than those that would sustain population abundance.
"This study only adds more credence to the reclassification of beluga sturgeon as 'critically endangered,' and underscores the need for swift, international protection to help them stave off extinction," said Dr. Pikitch. "And, the new IUCN assessment demonstrates that almost all of the 27 sturgeon species need enhanced protection since conservation measures to date have not been sufficient to ensure the recovery and long-term persistence of these valuable and ancient fish."
Drs. Pikitch and Doukakis presented their latest findings, as well as an overview of status and trends of global sturgeon fisheries, at a meeting during the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties to CITES in Doha, Qatar. Also presenting were Dr. Kent E. Carpenter, IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment Director, on the reclassification of the sturgeon species, and Dr. Volker Homes, Species Conservation Section Director, WWF Germany and TRAFFIC, on caviar trade and labeling.
The study is entitled, "Management and Recovery Options for Ural River Beluga Sturgeon."
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