Caviar may soon cease to exist, because the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) miscounted the number of wild sturgeon, leading to continued overfishing. Will the rich be happy about their tax cut if they can’t spend some of it on caviar?

Fred Pearce writes in New Scientist that CITES stated that beluga sturgeon numbers are on the increase, reaching 11.6 million in 2002, up from 9.3 million in 2001 and 7.6 million in 1998. Based on these estimates, it’s allowed Russia, Iran and other countries bordering the Caspian Sea to harvest up to 155 tons of beluga sturgeon and export up to nine tons of caviar.

But critics say there may are actually less than half a million fish left, and that other data gathered by CITES itself shows that the sturgeon population went down by 40% in 2002. Continued fishing and trade in beluga caviar may drive the species to extinction. The United States, the world’s leading importer of beluga, is considering banning it.

“CITES is using unreliable data without any review by independent experts,” says sturgeon geneticist Vadim Birstein. “It is expecting us to believe they have performed a miracle.”

Would it be a miracle if we got good, honest government? It all depends on who’s paying for it.

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