International caviar barons and scientists met in Moscow this weekend to discuss how to stop rampant poaching and overfishing driving the Caspian Sea sturgeon to extinction.
But environmentalists and the magnates grown rich on sales of the roe of the species - the fish can live more than a hundred years - admitted they were fighting a losing battle against the grinding poverty which forces people living on the Caspian's shores to poach immature fish.
"You'll never be able to overcome the survival instincts of the people who live around the Caspian," said Mats Engstrom, president and CEO of Tsar Nikolai Caviar in San Francisco.
"They're poor and no laws will stop them from wanting to put food on the table," Engstrom said on the sidelines of the World Conservation Union and Species Survival Commision open meeting.
Armen Petrossian, president of Caviar Petrossian in Paris which accounts for around 10 percent of the world's caviar trade, agreed that implementing a ban on international trade would be an almost impossible task.
"A ban on the caviar trade would do nothing but increase illegal fishing and smuggling," Petrossian said. "But we have to discuss what kind of practical measures we can take fast because if we don't there'll be no sturgeon left in a few years."
Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan fish for the Caspian sturgeon, and poachers in the region are reported to sell a kilo of caviar for as little as $20. A kilo of top quality caviar is advertised on Petrossian's website (www.petrossianparis.com) for $3,000.
An environmentalists' proposal for a Caspian fishing commission, presented to Russia's ministry of fisheries in draft form in December 2000, recommended a complete ban on sturgeon fishing to allow existing females to grow to at least 10 years old, when they begin to reach maturity.
Any ban would have to be a long one, scientists say, adding that it would probably worsen already rampant poaching.
Only around 250-300 tonnes of caviar was produced last year, 10 times less than in the Soviet heyday of the 1970s and 80s.
About 15,000 tonnes of sturgeon were poached from the Caspian, Azov and Black Seas of southern Russia and central Asia in 2000, on top of a legal catch of just 1,000 tonnes, said Dr Arkadiusz Labon, head of the fisheries section of the Caspian Environment Programme.
"Legislation in place in most of the Caspian states is based on Soviet legislation and its main feature was the stimulation of production growth and not conservation," said Labon.
The current state of legislative play was a labyrinthine mass of incomplete legislation which could never hope to quell poaching of such a desirable commodity, Labon said.
"Every now and again talk of a complete ban on exports of the most expensive beluga caviar surfaces but that's just not realistic because there's still a big domestic demand."
In December last year CITES, a U.N charter between 152 nations to protect rare animal species, gave six species of Caspian sturgeon endangered status, and may try to further restrict trade after its next meeting in Paris in June.
Saving the sturgeon should focus on tackling poaching and matching commercial production with the release of young sturgeon, called fingerlings, from hatcheries, experts at the meeting said.
The best way to ensure the sturgeon survives and caviar does not become a distant memory is to ease pressure on wild fish by boosting commercial farming, Engstrom said.
"We need to feed more fingerlings into the Caspian and produce caviar from hatcheries."