US to Allow Trade in Threatened Beluga Sturgeon

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a special rule to exempt international, foreign and interstate commerce in meat and caviar from threatened beluga sturgeon from permits normally required under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
March 5, 2005

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a special rule to exempt international, foreign and interstate commerce in meat and caviar from threatened beluga sturgeon from permits normally required under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

"We believe this special rule provides great incentives to countries harvesting beluga sturgeon to work with the U.S. to restore and conserve wild populations," said Service Director Steve Williams. "The rule is also an effective tool to encourage aquaculture facilities to get involved in the recovery of these economically valuable fish."

The special rule published today replaces a prior interim special rule.

The special rule's exemptions are limited to economically valuable beluga caviar and by-products such as cosmetics, and to beluga sturgeon meat harvested either from the wild or from hatcheries in countries with native populations. Countries must submit written management plans, annual reports and copies of national fishing laws on a specified schedule to the Service in order to use this exemption. If an exporting country fails to meet that schedule, then U.S. importers would have to comply with all the Act's permitting requirements for threatened species. Currently, eight coastal countries with indigenous beluga populations allow the commercial harvest and export of beluga sturgeon: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Romania, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkmenistan.

"Along with the U.S., these countries now will be able to engage in commercial activities that, without the special rule, would have been prohibited or limited. However, the exemptions come with conditions that connect continued trade with efforts to rebuild depleted beluga sturgeon populations," Williams said.

These countries have six months from the effective date of March 4, 2005, to submit their beluga sturgeon conservation and management plans to the Service for review. During this time, imports, re-exports, and interstate commerce of certain beluga sturgeon products will not require threatened species permits, but still must be accompanied by permits issued under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES),, a global agreement that monitors and controls trade in fish, wildlife and plants through a system of permits.

The special rule also conditionally exempts aquaculture facilities in countries not having native populations, such as the United States, from the Act's threatened species permit requirements. If a facility does not want to obtain an ESA permit for authorized take, export, and foreign or interstate commerce to allow legal trade in its products, then that facility must apply to the Service to be considered for the special rule's exemptions.

"The Service will grant an exemption only when convinced the requesting aquaculture facility poses no significant threat to wild beluga sturgeon, safeguards surrounding habitats from disease and the possibility that hatchery-raised fish might escape into the wild, and is working with countries in the species' range to study and help restore wild populations," Williams said.

This special rule calls for more data reporting, management planning and research sharing by native beluga sturgeon countries than currently required by CITES. Even after satisfying CITES criteria, these countries still have to meet the additional requirements of the special rule.

The Service listed all beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) populations as threatened under the Act on April 21, 2004. The threatened listing had a six month delayed effective date of October 21, 2004 to give the Service time to develop this special rule. The Service published a proposed special rule on June 29, 2004, which generated substantial public comment that required considerable time to address. Therefore, the agency issued an interim rule, effective October 21, 2004, to allow continued trade in beluga sturgeon products as long it was consistent with CITES.

Beluga sturgeon are also listed in Appendix II of CITES. This designation permits legal commercial trade in a listed species as long as it is not a threat to the species' survival in the wild.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 Fish and Wildlife Management offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.