Site icon Conservation news

Corruption-riddled caviar trade pushes fish closer to extinction

  • TRAFFIC, WWF and several other organizations and institutions have published a report demonstrating that corruption drives the illegal trade of caviar around the world.
  • Many of the species of fish, including those that produce the highest-priced caviar, are critically endangered.
  • The report’s authors surfaced evidence of bribery, conflicts of interest, poaching and improper labeling in the industry, all of which are putting further pressure on the resource.

Corruption fuels the illegal harvest and sale of caviar, potentially hastening the slide of many fish species toward extinction.

That’s the conclusion of a report published Feb. 13 by the NGO TRAFFIC, WWF, Northumbria University in the U.K., Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a nonprofit research organization called U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre in Norway.

Two sturgeons caught by illegal fishermen. Image © Evgeniy Polonskiy, courtesy of WWF.

“Effective elimination of corrupt practices is a pre-requisite to enable regulation of the caviar trade in a sustainable manner [and] to protect sturgeon stocks from over-exploitation,” Louisa Musing, a research officer with TRAFFIC, said in a statement.

The report’s authors surfaced evidence of bribery, conflicts of interest, poaching and improper labeling in getting the highly prized, salty fish eggs that often cost consumers thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Caviar typically comes from large, long-lived fish like sturgeon and paddlefish. Sixteen of the 27 species of sturgeon are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, as is one of the six species of paddlefish. Fishing, dams and pollution have exacted a toll on these animals, so CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has overseen the trade of caviar since the late 1990s. Since that time, most caviar has come from fish farming, also known as aquaculture.

A critically endangered Russian sturgeon in the Black Sea near Tendra, Ukraine. Image © Andrey Nekrasov/WWF.

But the high prices that eggs from wild-caught fish command have enticed some traders to find ways around the international regulations. (Even caviar from farm-raised fish is sometimes “black washed” — that is, improperly labeled as if it came from a wild fish to bump up its value to consumers. The authors note that black washing is rare, and perhaps entirely nonexistent, in other types of wildlife crime.)

The investigation revealed that fishers in search of caviar-laden females pay inspectors to overlook illegally caught fish. They also use scientific permits to mask their take of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, home of the sought-after — and critically endangered — beluga (Huso huso). Beluga in the Caspian spawn in the Volga River. Research between the 1960s and the 1990s found that the number of beluga heading upriver each year dropped from 26,000 to 2,800 in 33 years — a decline of 89 percent.

The authors advocate bringing in the perspectives of authorities who have worked on other forms of criminal corruption to understand how the trafficking works, spot the pathways of funding for illegal activity, and identify measures to end the corruption.

“Future research in this area should adopt social network or political ecology-type analysis to further investigate patterns of corrupt behaviours in caviar trade across contexts,” Aled Williams, a senior program adviser with U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, said in the statement. “We can then help improve techniques aimed at disrupting or shutting down the illegal trade, by minimizing corruption’s role in undermining law enforcement and customs controls.”

Caviar confiscated by customs officers at Heathrow Airport. Image © Edward Parker/WWF.

In cases where enforcement efforts have failed to stamp out corruption, the researchers suggest that these types of analyses can help authorities understand why corruption is acceptable in society.

“Changing attitudes through understanding and changing the social norms could be more effective than an enforcement orientated approach and is key to addressing this most intractable yet critical wildlife crime issue,” Rob Parry-Jones, head of WWF’s Wildlife Crime Initiative, said in the statement.

Banner image a Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) © Andrey Nekrasov/WWF. 


Gesner, J., Chebanov, M. & Freyhof, J. (2010). Huso huso. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T10269A3187455. Downloaded on 17 February 2019.

Gessner, J., Freyhof, J. & Kottelat, M. (2010). Acipenser gueldenstaedtii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T232A13042340. Downloaded on 17 February 2019.

Khodorevskaya, R.P., Ruban, G.I. and Pavlov, D.S. (2009). Behaviour, migrations, distribution and stocks of sturgeons in the Volga-Caspian basin. Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt, Germany.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Exit mobile version