[Federal Register: June 20, 2002 (Volume 67, Number 119)]
[Proposed Rules]               
[Page 41918-41920]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 90-Day and 12-
Month Findings for a Petition To List the Beluga Sturgeon (Huso huso) 
as Endangered Throughout Its Range

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of 90-day and 12-month petition findings.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), announce the 
90-day and 12-month findings for a petition to list the beluga sturgeon 
(Huso huso) under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We 
find that the petition presents substantial information indicating that 
listing this species may be warranted. After further review of all 
available scientific and commercial information, we also find that 
listing this species is warranted.

DATES: The findings announced in this document were made on May 13, 
2002. Comments and information must be submitted by August 19, 2002.

ADDRESSES: Data, information, comments, or questions concerning this 
petition should be submitted to the Chief, Division of Scientific 
Authority; Mail Stop ARLSQ 750; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 
Washington, DC 20240 (fax number: 703-358-2276; E-mail address: FW9 
Scientific Authority@fws.gov). The petition finding, supporting data, 
and comments are available for public inspection, by appointment, from 
8 a.m to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Room 750, 4401 North Fairfax 
Drive, Arlington, Virginia.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mr. Robert R. Gabel, Chief, Division 
of Scientific Authority, at the above address (telephone number: 703-
358-1708; fax number: 703-358-2276; E-mail address: FW9 Scientific 



    Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Endangered Species Act (Act) of 1973, as 
amended (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), requires that the Service make a 
finding on whether a petition to list, delist, or reclassify a species 
presents substantial scientific or commercial information demonstrating 
that the requested action may be warranted. This finding is to be based 
on all information available to us at the time the finding is made. To 
the maximum extent practicable, this finding is to be made within 90 
days of the date the petition was received, and the finding is to be 
published promptly in the Federal Register. If the finding is that 
substantial information was presented, Section 4(b)(3)(A) of the Act 
requires us to promptly commence a review of the status of the species. 
We now announce a 90-day finding on a recently received petition.
    Section 4(b)(3)(B) of the Act also requires that, for any petition 
to revise the Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants 
that contains substantial scientific and commercial information, the 
Service make a finding within 12 months of the date of the receipt of 
the petition on whether the petitioned action is (a) not warranted, (b) 
warranted, or (c) warranted but precluded from immediate proposal by 
other pending proposals of higher priority. Section 4(b)(3)(C) requires 
that petitions for which the requested action is found to be warranted 
but precluded should be treated as though resubmitted on the date of 
such finding (i.e., requiring a subsequent finding to be made within 12 
months). Such 12-month findings are to be published promptly in the 
Federal Register.
    On December 18, 2000, the Service received a petition dated 
December 4, 2000, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (Ellen 
Pikitch, Ph.D., and Liz Lauck), the Natural Resources Defense Council 
(Lisa Speer), and Sea Web (Vicki Spruill and Susan Boa) to list the 
beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) as endangered throughout its entire range. 
A 90-day finding is being announced concurrently with the Service's 12-
month finding in this document. The 90-day finding is that the petition 
presented substantial information indicating that the requested action 
may be warranted. The Service has reviewed the petition, the literature 
cited in the petition, and other available literature and information. 
On the basis of the best scientific and commercial information 
available, the 12-month finding is that the petitioned action is 

[[Page 41919]]

    The beluga sturgeon is a member of the genus Huso, family 
Acipenseridae, order Acipenseriformes, class Osteichthyes, phylum 
Chordata, and kingdom Animalia (Pirogovskii et al, 1989). Huso huso 
historically inhabited the waters of the Caspian, Black, Azov, and 
Adriatic Seas, as well as rivers within their watersheds (Bacalbasa-
Dobrovici, 1997a). The Adriatic Sea population is now considered 
extirpated. The last record of a wild-caught specimen in the Sea of 
Azov occurred in the mid-1980s (TRAFFIC/Europe, 1999).
    The life-history characteristics of beluga sturgeon make them 
particularly vulnerable to depletion. This species is long-lived and 
slow to mature. Reproductive maturity is reached somewhere between 11 
and17 years (Khodorevskaya et al., 1997). Males have been found to 
spawn only every 4-7 years, whereas females may only reproduce every 4-
8 years (Raspopov, 1993). Adult females may produce up to 12% of their 
body weight in roe (DeMeulenaer and Raymakers, 1996). Beluga sturgeon 
is an anadromous species, spending most of its life in salt water, 
returning to breed in the freshwater reaches of rivers (Bemis and 
Kynard, 1997). Sturgeons generally are considered fairly easy to 
harvest, as a result of predictable migration patterns and feeding 
habits, therefore adding to their vulnerability.
    Currently, population estimates for Caspian Sea and Black Sea 
beluga sturgeon are not available (TRAFFIC/Europe, 1999). However, 
based on Russian fisheries reports, it is clear that the total 
population has declined drastically over the past 30 years and 
continues to decline at an alarming rate. During the early 1970s, an 
estimated 25,000 Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon spawned in the Volga 
River. However, by the early 1990s this estimate had dropped to 7,000 
spawning fish (Khodorevskaya et al., 2000). At the present time, the 
Caspian Sea population is believed to be so depleted that natural 
reproduction in the wild may be insufficient to sustain the species 
(Khodorevskaya et al., 1997). Even hatchery production to augment this 
stock may no longer be a viable alternative due to the lack of 
available funding to continue artificial propagation programs and 
maintain an aging hatchery infrastructure in range countries. 
Additionally, the number of female beluga sturgeon taken in the Volga 
River delta was considered insufficient to even support artificial 
propagation efforts (Birstein et al., 1997). Russian fisheries 
officials recently observed that there were few, if any, large 
spawning-age females available to provide hatchery broodstock (TRAFFIC/
Europe, 1999).
    The population structure of beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea has 
shifted during the last 30 years, adding to concerns regarding declines 
in abundance. The relative percentage of older, spawning-age fish has 
dropped from 16.9 percent during 1966-1970 to 3.7 percent in 1991-1995 
(Khodorevskaya et al., 2000). The Volga River population is believed to 
be 96.3 percent hatchery reared, contributed through past practices of 
replacing harvested older fish with hatchery-produced fish 
(Khodorevskaya et al., 1997).
    Beluga sturgeon have been commercially harvested in the Black Sea 
for more than 2,000 years (Bacalbasa-Dobrovici, 1997b). By the mid-19th 
Century, beluga sturgeon harvest in the mid and upper reaches of the 
Danube River declined precipitously; only 16 individuals were taken 
from 1857 to 1957 (Hensel and Holcik, 1997). Construction of the Iron 
Gates I (Djerdap I) and Iron Gates II (Djerdap II) dams late in the 
20th Century further stressed the mid- and upper-river remnant 
populations. By 1835, the lower-river population was in decline. By the 
1960s, harvest ebbed to 220 tons per year and dwindled to an average 
annual harvest of 12.7 tons in 1994 (Bacalbasa-Dobrovici, 1997b). 
Currently, beluga sturgeon are considered vulnerable in the lower 
Danube River, critically endangered in the middle reaches, and 
extirpated from the upper reaches (Hensel and Holcik, 1997).
    Loss of centralized control after the dissolution of the Soviet 
Union in 1992, dam construction, and economic development of emerging 
former Soviet nations are contributing factors that have adversely 
modified or destroyed beluga sturgeon habitat in many areas. These 
factors will continue to threaten, modify, or destroy habitat over the 
entire beluga sturgeon range in the near future. However, the 
international demand for caviar is the most serious threat to the 
continued existence of this species. The decline of beluga sturgeon 
populations may be principally attributed to over-utilization to meet 
this demand, due to a combination of legal and illegal harvest of the 
    All sturgeon are killed to collect their roe. Even the males are 
destroyed, as it is impossible to differentiate between the sexes. 
Seven kilograms of caviar are retrieved for each 100 kilograms of total 
beluga sturgeon harvested (Doroshov and Binkowski, 1985, cited in 
Williot and Bourguignon, 1991). The caviar market is highly lucrative, 
involving a product that is in constant demand, is easily poached, and 
generates maximum prices, and is packaged in small containers that are 
easily smuggled. Previously, there was a state monopoly in the former 
Soviet Union that was tightly restricted through the institution of 
specific harvest regulations and controlled hatchery programs.
    The loss of centralized control has resulted in rapidly escalating 
harvest (legal and illegal combined), a lack of effective enforcement 
measures, and the release of insufficient hatchery-reared fish to 
replace those taken in the legal fishery. Prior to the political 
upheaval in the region, open-sea fishing for sturgeon was prohibited. 
However, since the mid-1990s, the open-sea fishery has been exploited, 
resulting in the take of young and immature stocks, effectively 
destroying future stock development. Bycatch of immature and adult 
beluga sturgeon are common in other regional fisheries, another factor 
contributing to the decline of the species (TRAFFIC/Europe, 1999). In 
1970, the Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon harvest was estimated at 2,800 
tons, yet by 1994, less than 300 tons were legally taken (Khodorevskaya 
et al., 1997).
    With the rapid decrease in legal harvest, poaching has become 
essentially uncontrollable. Reports of organized, large-scale poaching 
rings are common in all beluga sturgeon range countries. The level of 
poaching in the Caspian Sea and Volga River is estimated to be 6-10 
times greater than the legal harvest, and it is believed that 80-85 
percent of the legal catch remains unreported (DeMeulenaer and 
Raymakers, 1996). Prior to the 1998 listing of all previously unlisted 
Acipenseriformes in Appendix II of the Convention on International 
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the 
Service's Office of Law Enforcement estimated that more than 50 percent 
of the global caviar trade was illegal (USFWS, 1998). This activity is 
in violation of CITES, as well as the laws and regulations in effect in 
the beluga sturgeon range countries. The U.S. Department of Justice has 
recently prosecuted significant caviar trafficking cases, including 
cases where individuals were indicted for paying off-duty airline 
employees to transport suitcases packed with caviar into the United 
States. In the Black Sea region, Turkey and Georgia are among the 
countries that continue to report illegal bycatch and fishing in their 
waters. Despite a CITES Appendix-II listing, and some protection by 
domestic legislation at the national level in the beluga sturgeon range 
countries, existing regulatory mechanisms have

[[Page 41920]]

been inadequate to prevent poaching of beluga sturgeon or the 
international smuggling of processed caviar. Finally, most beluga 
sturgeon range states lack the funding, experience, personnel, and 
equipment to adequately prevent sturgeon poaching and other threats to 
the species.
    We find that the petition presents substantial information to show 
that the requested action may be warranted. Specifically, the 
information provided by the petitioners indicates that the total 
population of beluga sturgeon has declined precipitously over the last 
three decades, and that this decline has resulted primarily from over-
utilization for commercial purposes, present and continued destruction 
and modification of its habitat or range, and the inadequacy of 
existing regulatory mechanisms.
    Section 4(b)(3)(B) of the Act requires that the Service make a 
finding within 12 months of receipt of the petition as to whether the 
listing of Huso huso as threatened or endangered is warranted. The 
Service has reviewed the petition, the literature cited in the 
petition, and other available literature and information. On the basis 
of the best scientific and commercial information available, the 
Service's 12-month finding is that the petition is warranted and that 
sufficient information is available to support a proposed rule to 
classify the species as endangered or threatened.
    Export quotas for sturgeons of the Caspian Sea, including the 
beluga sturgeon, have been established for the 2002 harvest season by 
the countries bordering the Caspian Sea. These quotas were approved by 
the CITES Secretariat and reported to the Standing Committee at its 
46th meeting. Data from the recently completed trawl surveys of the 
Caspian Sea, conducted in 2001, and analysis thereof, which formed the 
basis for the establishment of these quotas, were recently published on 
the web site of the CITES Secretariat. These data and analyses are 
highly pertinent to this issue and any rulemaking action to follow. We 
believe that, prior to publication of a proposed rule in the Federal 
Register to classify the beluga sturgeon as endangered or threatened, 
adequate time must be allowed for the Service to evaluate the 
methodology used for the stock assessment, the resultant data and data 
analysis, and the conclusions drawn from them. Therefore, after review 
and consideration of the 2001 Caspian Sea stock assessment information, 
we intend to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register no later 
than June 30, 2002.

References Cited

    You may request a complete list of references cited in this notice 
from the Division of Scientific Authority (see ADDRESSES section).


    The authority for this action is the Endangered Species Act of 1973 
(16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.).

    Dated: May 13, 2002.
Steve Williams,
[FR Doc. 02-15580 Filed 6-19-02; 8:45 am]