MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia hopes to save the sturgeon from extinction by setting up a state caviar monopoly and stiffening punishments for poachers, its top fisheries official said on Thursday.
The sturgeon, popularly known as the “tsar fish,” has been hunted to the verge of extinction by poachers and criminal groups who spirit its delicate eggs — caviar — from the Caspian Sea to diners across Europe, Asia and the United States.
The idea of creating a Russian caviar monopoly has been floated several times since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it took officials five years to agree on how it could work.
Russia’s chief fisheries official, Andrei Krainiy, told the cabinet that a draft law could be debated this year.
“The idea of a monopoly has been introduced into the draft law — of state regulation of the whole process, from nurturing sturgeon to its processing and sale,” Krainiy said, according to Russian news agencies.
“This does not mean that the private sector will have no place, but it means the state will control all the processes very strictly. It will have elements of a state monopoly.”
The tsars created a monopoly for the sale of caviar and the Bolsheviks continued the business. But since communism collapsed, the state has lost much of its control, leaving the sturgeon at the mercy of rampant poaching and rising pollution.
Most of the world’s sturgeon spawn in the rivers that flow into the Caspian. The caviar is sold by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia.
Russia says the population of beluga sturgeon, source of the dearest caviar, has fallen by 90 percent over the past 20 years.
A spokesman for the fisheries agency said just 9 tons of black caviar was produced legally each year in Russia, none of it for export.
Even in Moscow, once known for its feasts of Beluga eggs washed down with pancakes, sour cream and vodka shots, black caviar is now too expensive for all but the mega-rich.
In Moscow, 1 kg of Russian Beluga now sells for about $10,000 ($4,540 a lb). At the Harrods department store in London, Iranian Beluga costs 10,000 pounds a kg ($19,580 a kg, or $8,900 a lb).
Those prices have made the sturgeon a target for criminal groups and corrupt officials. Fisheries wardens in the Caspian say they are losing the battle against heavily armed poachers.
By bringing the entire production process under monopoly control, Russia hopes to make it harder for poachers or gangs working with corrupt officials to get illegal caviar onto the market.
A spokesman said Krainy was even considering implanting electronic chips into sturgeon to help in regulating the catch.
Krainiy cited the example of Iran, where strict punishments for poaching have kept the caviar trade firmly under state control. Black caviar is not sold on the streets of Tehran, though it can be bought at the airport.
“In Iran, for example, they impose the death penalty for poaching sturgeon,” he told the cabinet. “I am not calling for that, God forbid, but it shows how seriously the topic is treated.”
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey