INTERVIEW | The ambiguous conservation benefits of caviar

In this recent interview, Hannah Dickinson discusses her doctoral research into the EU caviar trade.

Hannah Dickinson has featured in a Faculty of Social Sciences news piece, focussing on her doctoral research on the impact of caviar trade regulations upon the dynamics of illegal caviar trade and geopolitics in the European Union

You can read the full piece here and transcribed below.

Full article

Rising demand for luxury wildlife products among European and North American consumers is a key driver in the global illegal wildlife trade. Historically, illegal caviar trade has pushed critically endangered sturgeon to the brink of extinction, but through a number of regulatory changes the global caviar industry has transformed over the past two decades: moving from wild-caught to captive-bred caviar. Key actors including policymakers, industry leaders and conservationists have heralded this shift as a positive development for sturgeon conservation in the European Union and beyond.

What has become clear however, is that sturgeon aquaculture and the systems of captive-bred caviar production have been exploited for illicit caviar trade. This has resulted in a caviar ‘grey market’ in the EU, with the potential to undermine ongoing sturgeon conservation initiatives.

Hannah Dickinson is a Research Associate for the University of Sheffield’s BIOSEC project, which critically examines the growing inter-relationships between biodiversity conservation and security. Her doctoral research examines the impact of caviar trade regulations upon the dynamics of illegal caviar trade and geopolitics in the European Union.

Hannah said: ‘EU policy changes mandated a shift from wild-caught to farmed caviar in recent years, and this has coincided with a stark decline in seizures of illegal caviar trade in the EU. This decline is often seen as proof that the growth of sturgeon farming can reduce demand for illegally sourced caviar in international markets and it’s widely viewed as having brought illegal caviar trade under control in the EU.

‘But what I’ve found in my research is that while the move towards farmed caviar production has transformed the caviar industry, it has also created a number of issues undermining the conservation potential of caviar aquaculture. I believe the current system of caviar production has limitations in how it can protect the future of the species in the wild.’

Hannah’s research shows that current enforcement strategies unequally impact the sturgeon fishing communities in the EU, because it is easier to identify those who poach than those involved in criminal activity and laundering further up the caviar supply chain.

‘There are people embedded within the supply chain in legal caviar farming, and within the repackaging companies, who fraudulently label wild caviar as farmed in order to sell on legal markets (whitewashing) and to mirror that, a process of farmed caviar being relabelled as wild to be sold on illegal markets (blackwashing.)’

Whilst blackwashed caviar is not technically wild caviar, these activities continue to fuel demand for wild caviar in the EU, therefore undermining the conservation potential of farmed caviar production.

‘The people engaging in this criminal activity are embedded within legal enterprises but are engaging in some form of illegal or illicit behaviour alongside, so it becomes difficult to identify,’ Hannah said. ‘But the other issue is that the enforcement authorities aren’t focusing on sturgeon farms or aquaculture facilities, or repackaging businesses themselves and that seems to be where some of the illegal activity is going on.

‘There’s a gap in the enforcement chain and a lot of enforcement activity is about stopping poaching and illegal harvesting of sturgeon in the wild but misses the actors further up the supply chain who are engaged in illegal activity. So I think the burden of that falls on people in the communities who are already economically marginalised and insecure. So the actors of criminal activity within the caviar supply chain are almost shielded from enforcement oversight and profit from this inequality.

‘The people who have been left behind when legal caviar farming came into place were the fishing communities who lost their livelihoods overnight and many of these communities are living in near-poverty. There’s a lack of alternative economic options for these fishing communities who have been impacted. Furthermore, the laws were implemented with no regard for the impact it would have on already very marginalised and poor sturgeon fishing communities in Europe, and this is a significant issue which has resulted in further poaching.’

Hannah stresses that more work needs to be done, whether that’s aid from the EU or in establishing tourist initiatives in the Danube Delta. She said: ‘We need to focus our energies on no longer criminalising these people but providing alternative employment opportunities for them and working on building trust and relationships with these people again so that they can be reintegrated into society and find alternative livelihoods so they’re not pushed into engaging in poaching or engaging with criminal networks.

‘The other significant thing that needs to happen is that enforcement authorities and bodies in the EU need to focus more energy on carrying out frequent inspections and controls on the sturgeon aquaculture facilities that have sprung up across Europe and the businesses allowed to repackage caviar. ‘

Hannah’s policy brief, Conservation & Crime: The paradoxical faces of caviar production in the EU, aims to highlight how the current system of caviar production can undermine sturgeon conservation efforts in the EU; and provide clear recommendations for how policymakers, NGOs and the caviar industry should work together to address the limitations of farmed caviar production and ensure the caviar industry is sustainable and transparent.

Find out more about the BIOSEC project and Hannah’s work.