Broader Caviar Ban Restricts Tourists, Too

Caviar isn't just for the wealthy. A dot of it on a crisp-fried crab cake, a touch of it with smoked salmon on a sesame cracker ... a little bit goes a long way.

Plus, travelers have found beluga caviar a nifty little thing to squirrel away in various suitcases and carry-on bags during jaunts abroad -- something nice to have as a remembrance of the trip, and certainly an easy-to-transport gift for the folks back home.

Thus, it's unfortunate that just as various types of caviar are finding more favor with American palates that the U.S. government has broadened its ban on the importation of the best -- beluga. That ban isn't limited to commercial importers. It goes for travelers, too.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had slapped a ban on beluga caviar from the Caspian Sea back in September, and now has extended the ban to include the Black Sea basin. (See map.) The effect of this expansion means that the U.S. is banning all imports of the most highly-regarded caviar.

This is not in service of some protectionist marketing philosophy, though. It is to help protect the rapidly-dwindling sturgeon population in that part of the world that has been overfished for years and now is in danger of extinction. The Caspian and Black seas are the only producers of beluga caviar in the world.

Beluga caviar already in the U.S. may be sold for the next 18 months, so if you're interested in getting it, now is the time. As Michael Emery, sales directore for Petrossian, the New York City caviar importer, says, "We still have enough beluga to last until the end of the year, depending on the demand. Once we run out, that's it."

The ban does not include osetra or sevruga caviar, or caviar from farmed sturgeon. The U.S. ban has been greeted with pleasure by various conservation organizations because Americans consume some 60% of beluga caviar.

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said the ban is effective immediately and will stay in effect until caviar-producing countries make "significant progress" in regional efforts to protect the fish.

The full scope of the ban includes caviar, meat and other products from beluga sturgeon imported from the region, re-exported from an intermediary country or carried by travelers, who until now had been allowed to bring up to 250 grams of beluga caviar (about a half-pound) into the United States without a permit.

The New York Times quotes Robert Gabel of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as saying the illegal trade in beluga caviar is estimated at 10 to 12 times times the size of the legal trade.

"During Soviet times there was very strict state control of the fishery," Gabel told the Times. "Currently, the people that seem to be in control are really organized crime and the bad players."

Petrossian's Michael Emery said caviar from California farm-raised white sturgeon "is wonderful. We do sell quite a bit of it. We feel it's very close to an osetra. We have been steering our clientele away from beluga for some time."

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