One of the world's two major caviar-producing nations, Iran is witnessing a constant drop in its production as poaching and pollution continue to take a toll on the Caspian Sea's sturgeon population.
"During the past 20 years, some 140 million sturgeon from the Caspian have disappeared," an Iranian official recently said, blaming the phenomenon on illegal fishing amid increasingly high prices for the black delicacy. Iranian authorities say the sharp fall in the sea's sturgeon population is also linked to a partition of the inland sea's resources.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 which created three new Caspian countries — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — the sea's sturgeon population dropped from 200 million in 1990 to 60 million just five years later. In 1999, Iran produced 100 tons of sturgeon eggs, a drop of over 60 percent as compared to a decade ago when Iran produced 300 tons annually.
Tehran regularly accuses the sea's littoral states of developing their own caviar industry without precautions, warning against a failure to check illegal fishing and allowing nets of too small a mesh.
The Iranian government, which has had a monopoly on the lucrative domestic caviar industry since the beginning of the 20th century, sells the "black pearls" for prices ranging between $400 and $700 per kilo ($880 and $1,540 a pound). But clients in the West are often made much cheaper offers by smugglers who sell high-quality caviar for just $110 a kilo.
Caviar was discovered in the 19th century by Russian fishermen and is mostly destined for markets in Europe or the United States where customers are willing and able to pay much higher prices.
In Iran, the precious delicacy is mostly seen at the tables of the more well to do elite members of society, or at diplomatic receptions — most Iranians finding neither the money, nor the appreciation for the "black jam with a funny flavor".
On Sunday, the government-run Iran paper cited Hossein Abdolhay, an official from the Iranian Fishery Organization (IFO), as saying that between six and eight tons of contraband high-quality caviar were being sold each year to countries in Europe and north America.
"Some 30 percent of the caviar served in restaurants in the West is contraband," Abdolhay said, affirming that Iran's revenues from caviar dropped to $50 million this year, as compared to some $65 million last year.
The IFO releases around 20 million sturgeon fry into the Caspian each year, and earlier this year, Iran and Russia announced that they would cooperate against the smuggling of the delicacy to replenish supplies.
The drop in the Caspian's sturgeon population harvested by Iran's official industry reflects increasing pollution by the sea's growing oil industry as well as illegal fishing by the dozens of poachers who go out every night virtually unchallenged. They are plundering a resource, which is virtually irreplaceable, the sturgeon, which dates back to prehistoric times, being almost impossible to breed elsewhere.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government suggested privatization of the caviar industry in the current five-year economic plan, which began in March, but no concrete decisions have yet been taken. Experts here believe that the crisis in the industry could rule out any possibility of privatization. — (AFP, Riyadh)
by Kianouche Dorranie
© Agence France Presse 2000
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