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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
Crackdown on the caviar smugglers
With the price of the delicacy reaching £1,000 for 100g, there's a thriving black market. But top chefs are being warned off.
Its many fans call it black gold, and with good reason. The price of wild caviar has shot up by 60 per cent over the past 12 months, prompting a smuggling boom that has thrown the survival of sturgeon into doubt. The illegal trade in the little black eggs is worth an estimated £250m a year globally, and more than 12 tonnes have been seized in the European Union since 2000.
But now the UK is fighting back with its first concerted crackdown on illegal caviar traders. Chefs in more than 350 London restaurants, clubs and casinos have been warned they face prosecution if they are found sourcing caviar on the black market. Westminster council is leading the attack because more caviar is sold in the borough's 8.3 square miles than anywhere else in the country. It is working with the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), which is investigating the scale of the illegal trade across the UK.
Chris Kerr, who heads the NWCU, said: "As a luxury product, caviar will and does attract criminality. It can be sourced relatively cheaply, so if it is brought into the UK people can make huge profits. We would like to arrest and prosecute criminals but that is easy to say and difficult to do."
Laura King, who runs King's Fine Foods, which supplies the bulk of the caviar sold in Britain, said black-market caviar is "like dealing in drugs. It's a great way to make loads of money if you think you can get away with it". She said several outlets in London are known to sell black-market caviar. Four years ago, police swooped on three shops in the Kensington area, seizing 229 tins of illegal caviar along with documents showing a further 3 tonnes were on order. But they did not prosecute.
Law enforcement agencies have barely scratched the surface of the illegal trade, which is worth at least five times the legal trade. Julia Roberson, of Caviar Emptor, a conservation organisation, said more than 1.5 tonnes of illegal caviar had been found in the UK over the past seven years. The NWCU will report on the size of the black market by October.
Environmentalists estimate that sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea, which produces the most caviar, have fallen by more than 90 per cent in the past three decades because of over-fishing, both legal and illegal. Earlier this month, the UN agency Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) set new catch and export quotas on sturgeon roughly in line with last year's limits, but they have drawn criticism for being too lenient. Phaedra Doukasis, of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, a US environmental lobby group, said: "Keeping quotas steady suggests sturgeon stocks are steady, but I doubt there is any evidence to back that up. Quotas should fall every year."
Although experts believe new Cites rules that require all exported caviar to be marked with special non-reusable labels have helped contain black-market trade, illegal harvesting and poaching are felt to be as rife as ever because domestic demand has exploded. Vladimir Putin was recently photographed kissing a sturgeon at a southern Russian fish farm, in an attempt to popularise farmed caviar.
Given the plight of the wild sturgeon ' and the price of its eggs, which have hit £1,000 for 100g of Beluga caviar ' many UK restaurants and retailers are turning to its sustainable cousin. Even Michelin-starred chefs, including Michel Roux at London's Le Gavroche, are dishing up farmed caviar. Waitrose started stocking ethical caviar at Christmas, and it is also available at Fortnum & Masons and Harrods.
Alan Jones, who runs Sturgeon SCEA, an ethical caviar producer based near Bordeaux, said: "Customers prefer to offer farmed caviar because wild caviar is so expensive, supply is unreliable and it's not very ecologically sensible to offer a product that comes from stocks fished almost to extinction."
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Issues/Retail / consumers