Romania, Bulgaria try to fight caviar poachers, protect threatened sturgeon

Bucharest – The unassuming middle-aged women move quietly through Bucharest’s business center, whispering and flashing glimpses of jars filled with a mysterious dark mush to potential buyers. They travel for hours by bus or train from the Danube Delta on the Black Sea to sell caviar, the epitome of gastronomic luxury once enjoyed only by the communist elite, to the Romanian capital’s new yuppie crowd. For connoisseurs, they are a chance to buy one of the world’s most expensive delicacies at $55 a kilo (2.2 pounds), a fraction of its market price. For Romania and fellow European Union candidate Bulgaria, they are the enemy. The two Balkan neighbors, the world’s third and fourth largest caviar exporters after Russia and China, must clean up an industry plagued by smuggling, poaching and illegal trading by the time they join the EU in 2007. Their roadmap – a document detailing work to be done before EU accession – dictates steps that must be taken to battle illegal fishing by 2005. Romania must introduce measures to protect caviar-producing sturgeon, which has been brought to the brink of extinction by intensive poaching, and fight illegal sales and exports. Its Rocaviar Association of Caviar Exporters says widespread smuggling prevents honest exporters from establishing a foothold in other EU markets and in the United States. According to Rocaviar, about 2 tons of Romanian caviar is smuggled each year. Brussels has urged Romania to strengthen control of its Danube fishing activities and hire more guards along the river but little has been done. «The police are helpless. They caught only a few smugglers and paraded them on local television stations as if they were serial killers,» said Romcaviar head Dan Rusan. Predating the dinosaurs An ancient species predating the dinosaurs, sturgeon numbers have declined by up to 70 percent in the past century, prompting US conservation groups to call for a global ban on trade in beluga in favor of farmed caviar. At least one Bulgarian was happy to oblige. «The future is in farmed caviar. It can help preserve wildlife and keep caviar fans happy,» said Bulgaria’s caviar baron, Atanas Chobanov, who last year exported around half of the country’s 1,720 kg (3,792 lb) of caviar sold abroad. His 800-square-meter (8,610-square-foot) sturgeon-breeding farm, built in 1997 in the southern village of Bolyartsi, is the first of its kind in the Balkan state. Its eight fish pools and buildings are surrounded by concrete walls and guarded by dogs. Romania has long been a leading caviar exporter, sending abroad 4 out of 7 tons produced annually in the last few years. Bulgaria will export 1.74 tons in 2003. «Until 1989, caviar in Bulgaria was only for the communist elite and exports were negligible,» said a local trader. Romania sells caviar at about $350 a kilo, mainly on the EU market – mostly to France and Germany which sometimes re-export it to the United States. More than 90 percent of last year’s sales from Bulgaria went directly to the US at $300-400 per kilo. Caviar sells for up to $2,000 per kilo on the American market, one of the world’s largest consumers of the delicacy. Endangered beluga Export quotas have been set by CITES, a UN treaty that protects endangered species, to ensure the sturgeon’s survival. The beluga sturgeon, whose eggs are the most sought-after variety of caviar, inhabits only the Caspian and Black seas and spawns in the rivers flowing into them. Bulgarian officials believe that strict adherence to export quotas set by CITES and restocking programs for the Danube will prevent further endangerment of sturgeon. The Environment Ministry in Sofia, which distributes the export quota among the country’s caviar exporters, requires them to restock up to 100 sturgeon for each kilo of caviar exported. «Restocking should support both preserving the sturgeon population and the caviar exports,» said Stoimen Yolchev, a senior inspector at the National Agency on Fishing and Aquacultures. Romania used to produce 23 tons of caviar a year in the 1930s but pollution, over-fishing and poachers have threatened sturgeon in the country in the past 13 post-communist years. Officials and traders in Romania, which is now preparing measures to populate the Danube Delta, say the country could win a bigger export quota if it cracks down on illegal fishing. New artificial breeding centers will open in 2003, to add to the current one, based in the Romanian port of Galati. Since last year, a second sturgeon-breeding farm has opened in Bulgaria, near the Danube port of Vidin. And in Bolyartsi, Chobanov has brought in Yuri Chmyir, an expert from Krassnoyarsk’s Fish Farming Institute in Russia to help apply techniques of extracting sturgeon roe without killing the fish. Chobanov says he never touches the stuff Westerners pay a fortune to eat. «I don’t like excess and glamour,» said the simply-dressed 57-year-old.