A prosperous illegal trade in caviar that flourishes throughout Europe is pushing many sturgeon species to the brink of extinction and governments are not doing enough to stop it, the WWF said today (15 December).

According to data from the EU and Switzerland, European authorities seized almost 12 tones of illegal caviar between 2000 and 2005. The top five offenders were Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK. Additionally, large quantities of illegal caviar are consumed in the countries of origin, such as the Russian Federation.

“We fear that quantities of illegal caviar are much higher than official statistics due to the covert nature of the trade,” said Stephanie Theile, TRAFFIC’s European coordinator.

The result of the illegal traffic is the alarming depletion of sturgeon stocks. Wildlife groups are calling for the implementation of new legislation to curtail the sale of illegal caviar, but fear that if action is not taken soon it will be too late.

“European governments have been delaying implementation of a universal caviar labelling system which identifies the origin of the so-called ‘black gold’ – and will help to combat the thriving illegal trade,” Theile continued.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) introduced proposals that a universal labelling system be introduced; a move accepted by all governments and scheduled to be implemented by January 2004. However, Eastern European governments have been slow to meet these requirements.

A new EU regulation implementing the labelling system is due to come into effect in 2006. Wildlife groups, fearing that the new measure will be equally ineffective, are working to increase public awareness of the issue at this crucial juncture.

Callum Rankine, head of the WWF-UK Species Programme said: “The mystique that surrounds caviar means that it is in ever greater demand, but the illegal trade is now turning a luxury for the wealthy into a death sentence for many species of sturgeon.”