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EU vows tough controls on illegal Caspian caviar

Written by: Staff
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BRUSSELS, May 15 (Reuters) The European Union, the world's top caviar importer, will clamp down on illegal shipments of the prized delicacy to try to prevent sturgeon from dying out in the Caspian Sea, its executive arm said today.

New rules, expected to enter into force across the bloc in June, will require all tins of caviar imported, exported or marketed in the EU to be labelled to show the caviar is legally sourced, with its harvest year, the European Commission said.

The EU accounted for around 46 per cent of global caviar trade between 1998 and 2003. Russia and Iran are the leading exporters to EU markets.

''The EU is the first major market for caviar to implement the new internationally agreed rules to combat illegal caviar trade,'' Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said.

''The extent of illegal trade and poaching in the Caspian Sea appears to be huge. The new EU rules should contribute to reducing it and ensuring the survival of wild sturgeon populations,'' he said in a statement.

Environmentalists estimate that sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea -- surrounded by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia -- have plunged by 90 percent since the late 1970s due to overfishing, both legal and illegal.

In the EU at present, only larger tins holding more than 250 grams of caviar have to be labelled. For smaller tins, the labelling rule applies to the boxes in which they are packed.

Now, labels will have to be used regardless of tin size and whether the caviar is imported, re-packaged or to be exported.

All re-packaging plants for caviar in the EU must be licensed.

Last month, a United Nations body set up to safeguard endangered species said it was extending a ban on Caspian caviar exports for all countries except Iran, until producer countries around the Caspian and Black seas gave better information on stock levels and illegal sales of the delicacy.

The Black Sea is a less important source of sturgeon -- and therefore caviar -- than the Caspian.

While actual amounts of the world's illegal caviar trade are unknown, they are thought to be significant, with poaching levels far exceeding legal harvesting.

Industry officials say the black market in caviar is about the same as the legal market at some 100 tonnes a year. Almost 12 tonnes of illegal caviar was seized by European authorities between 2000 and 2005, with Germany top of the list.

Caviar trading is lucrative: retail values can vary from 2,000 to 6,000 euros per kg. Just 100g of the exclusive Beluga caviar can cost as much as 600 euros.

REUTERS SHB BD2059

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