by MONITOR “UN suspends trade in caviar” was a headline yesterday likely to worry every high-living millionaire much more than the news about a possible shortage of Russian gas. And even those of us who long ago said farewell to the idea of ever again indulging in those tiny black pearls of epicurean delight must have wondered why on earth the United Nations was getting itself involved in the supply of caviar. It turns out that a UN body known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is keeping a close watch on the well-being of the sturgeon in the Caspian Sea from which 90 per cent of the world's caviar is produced. Each year CITES sets export quotas for caviar but has been unable to do so for 2006 because it has not received enough information about the fish population in the Caspian Sea basin. Until a quota is set the principal producers of caviar, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia cannot sell the sturgeon roe which can cost as much as 5'000 pounds per kilogram. Political change in the area has had a devastating effect on caviar production. In the early 1990s the annual production was more than 1'000 tonnes but last year the quota set by the UN was just 105 tonnes, although it is believed that as much again is handled through the black market. Everywhere one looks nowadays efforts are being made to protect species from extinction. Japan is under constant attack for its insistence that there are plenty of whales to support its particular taste for them and that it is being discriminated against in the ban on killing them; in the North Sea it is the humble cod that has to be protected from voracious fishing fleets. Measured against the huge scale of such protective measures the sturgeon's plight seems insignificant. But not when we know that it costs five thousand pounds a kilo.

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