5 The Black Gold of the Sea

Valerie Antenucci

Caviar is considered one of the finest and oldest delicacies in the world dating back to people like Marco Polo and Aristotle (Monique). Caviar’s long history as a luxury food started in Russia but became a trend in Europe in the 20th century, served with champagne and oysters (Van Uhm, D, & Siegel, D). Another reason caviar is considered one of the finest delicacies in the world is its origin: endangered sturgeon. Many take endangered animals and consider them “rare delicacies” that should only be sold at top prices. These luxury goods have become a symbol for the elite hence caviar becoming extremely sought-after. The demand for caviar from endangered sturgeon has sparked the perfect storm for a black market to emerge. It has offered the opportunity to fish illegally, smuggle and trade this contraband worldwide. This black market context creates the perfect environment for damages to ecosystems, economic and social consequences, and the possible extinction of many types of sturgeon.

The Sturgeon species has survived since the time of the dinosaurs but now is one of the most endangered groups of animals on the Red list of endangered species due to the intense demand for caviar. The caviar black markets are incredibly harmful to biodiversity. As the economic value of this delicacy increases, this species’ population decreases. This economy puts stress on the marine ecosystems where sturgeon live. It is known that all species interact indirectly or directly in any ecosystem and when one species is affected, the entire food web is thrown off balance.

Sturgeon are an indigenous species in the Caspian Sea and are a vital indicator of the ecosystem’s health. Many studies have shown that sturgeon are keystone species, which are very important in their environment. When this species is overfished and poached, it causes many adverse effects on the ecosystem and can lead to its collapse (Wilson and Kellert 1993). When this threat was first realized, very few gave it a second thought. Still, after viewing the international pressure under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), many governments, including the United States government, declared a temporary ban on exports of sturgeon, both meat and caviar. This ban, however, has not stoppred any of the smuggling of contraband and the continuing threat against sturgeon populations and impact on its ecosystems.

Many parts of the caviar black market are no different from the other black markets worldwide. One example would be that black markets are combinations of licit and illicit businesses working together to maximize profit, and the caviar black market is a prime example. When looking at the economic aspect of black markets with licit businesses, we assume the official exchange rate is fixed, and the variation in the black market rate determines the size of the premium. Studies have shown the black market exchange rate depends on the current supply and demand needs within the market itself. The supply side depends on under-invoicing exports, smuggling, and officially allocated foreign exchange resale. (Bahmani-Oskooee, M., & Goswami, G.). In the 1990s, scholars decided to study criminal markets where there were continuations of licit businesses (Williams 2001: 106). Many scholars consider both licit and illicit businesses regular and voluntary exchanges of goods for money under conditions of competition (Beckert and Wehinger 2011: 2) because both were argued to exist due to “the breakdown of boundaries between political, economic, and socio-cultural systems” (Gilman et al. 2011: 2–3). Scholars describe this breakdown of the licit and illicit businesses as the supply-and-demand framework, in which criminals supply criminal products or services, and the public creates the demand for crime.

Organized crime works in a social environment which is the perfect storm for their various activities. The social environment allows caviar black markets to embed themselves in legal enterprises used as a front for their illegal activities (Van Uhm, D., & Siegel, D). According to many sources, during the post-Soviet period, the official directors of the current fish farms in Russia were the main influences in the illegal caviar trade. The Russian mafia transferred economic assets into many private enterprises. The black markets in Russia contributed between 20 and 45% of the GDP (Kosals, 1998, p 59). Since the caviar trade has been around for decades, many have had time to master their craft of lying to public officials. These businesses will use false or forged documents imitating well-known brands such as “Russkaya Ikra, or bogus information about the producer, such as the non-existent Russian Ministry of Fishery” (Lawson 2002; Knapp et al. 2006). Many also have excuses when caught fishing and have documents that reinforce the idea they are fishing for “scientific” purposes when they are illegally poaching (Zabyelina). Not only does illegal fishing cause damage to the sturgeon population, but it also causes economic problems with legal documentation. This makes it very difficult to catch these black markets, so they continue to flourish. Due to social environments, black markets can be intertwined with legal enterprises, reinforcing their ability to stay hidden.

To catch caviar black markets, many have turned to scientists to find a new way of finding many of the caviar black markets. In hopes of differentiating the licit vs. illicit caviar businesses, scientists have figured out ways to distinguish between counterfeit caviar, mislabeled caviar, and pure caviar. Mislabeled caviar is created when black markets take other types of lower-level sturgeon or a mix of different sturgeon species. In reality, one can only mix species for “pressed caviar,” not regular caviar. In these studies, many find counterfeit caviar made up of other animal DNA or amplification of sturgeon-specific microsatellites (Ludwig, A., Lieckfeldt, D., & Jahrl, J). It is observed that for every ton of fish caught legally, at least five tons have been caught or harvested illegally. Since 1998, many species of sturgeons have been listed in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (Ludwig, A., Lieckfeldt, D., & Jahrl, J. 2015). The CITES listing has helped many understand each species’ DNA to know what types of sturgeon are being caught.

As technology has progressed, scientists have done studies to find out what comes from a licit business versus a black market. In a particular study, ten samples matched their species code on their CITES labels, six samples were counterfeit, four were mislabeled, and four were offered as ‘wild origin,’ ignoring the fishing bans in place. After further investigation, “at least one sample was upgraded from a lower-priced species to a more expensive species” (Ludwig, A., Lieckfeldt, D., & Jahrl, J. 2015). Scientists have also started DNA sampling and isotope analysis to determine hotspots for poaching and trade, which has been a big help. However, we as a society are still determining where we need to be to stop the effects of the caviar trade. As of late, these tests only help after the sturgeon has already been fished. But as technology improves, many can use this information to figure out where the counterfeit or mislabeled caviar was sold from and follow the chain right to the center of these black markets to stop them from causing more damage to the sturgeon population, in turn, saving the ecosystems.

Wherever there is black market involvement, the government is right around the corner, but government interventions in black market activity are not always as helpful as intended. Due to the increasing possibility of extinction of sturgeon, many countries around the world set up caviar bans and punishments for being caught poaching. For example, “In Russia, punishment for the illegal fishing of sturgeons is a fine of up to 500,000 roubles or three years imprisonment, including the seizure of equipment and vehicles used during poaching and compensation for the damage to the species (Maltsev 2009).” Many countries have punishments like fines or imprisonment. Another example is Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia; exporting wild sturgeon is illegal.  These bans caused increases in the prices of caviar and the secrecy of the black markets. In the Caspian states, it was almost impossible for public officials to limit the activities of caviar. For example, inspectors in the Caspian Sea generally roam around with automatic rifles to enforce these bans. In response, many fishermen have started carrying weapons to regain their fishing resources. When the government and citizens are armed and fighting for what they think is right, you often get armed conflict (Hauck 2007: 272–274). These conflicts have even increased tension between territories like Dagestan and Kazakhstan (Raymakers 2002). The tension between territories and citizens causes safety issues mainly caused by these black markets. It puts citizens’ safety at risk as well as causes civil strife and arguments with the government. This tension leads to the idea that when a citizen’s trust in the government is low, black markets tend to grow. Although the government’s intentions are for the improvement of society, many may interpret this forcefulness and bans as a symbol of control. There is a fine line between helping and hurting, and governments globally do not know where they stand.

Not only do the caviar black market cause harm to ecosystems, but it also causes economic and social consequences. Many factors go into this black market that many do not think are important. The caviar trade affects human health and fishers who fish in places like the Caspian Sea. For example, the increased desire for caviar combined with the increasing number of caviar black markets creates the desire for “long-life” caviar. “Long life” caviar is created when added substances harmful to human consumption are found. Black markets have used prohibited drugs to preserve caviar for extended periods (Daan van Uhm & Dina Siegel 2016). These drugs cause not only economic harm but also many social repercussions.

Another social issue is that the criminalization of fishing for all sturgeon has caused many fishermen to protest against these bans because they feel they have the right to do so. These bans indirectly target them since they had been fishing sturgeon legally, and now that source of income has vanished (Nurse 2015). Black markets worldwide do not care about the consequences they have on others. Their main goal is to maximize profit by any means necessary. As stated in the previous paragraph, when the government bans things people think are necessary, like the fishermen who fish to survive, it can cause a lot of distrust in the government.  The government has started to arrest those who have been caught illegally selling contraband and searching planes and buildings that have been suspected of transporting illegal caviar. Yes, this is helping stop black markets from selling illegal caviar, but it is also causing more problems from a social and economic aspect.  As the government arrests people for illegally fishing and selling caviar, it causes increases in incarceration rates, which can increase taxes and cause an outburst from citizens. Many of those citizens arrested were fishermen who were doing what they needed to survive but now have been fined an extreme amount of money or had to be incarcerated for an extended time. These examples show that not only does the caviar black market cause harm to ecosystems, but it also causes harm to citizens and creates social quarrels.

The increased demand for caviar struck the perfect storm for black markets, with irreparable damage. The context creates the perfect environment for ecosystem damage, economic and social consequences, and the possible extinction of many types of sturgeon. As the government cracks down on the black market caviar trade, black markets have gotten smarter and slicker in how they catch, harvest, and transport contraband. These black markets will keep the species endangered and soon cause complete extinction. Not only have they harmed sturgeon, but they also caused many ecosystems to be on the brink of collapse. Local fishermen worldwide are now struggling to survive, and citizens don’t feel as safe and protected when law enforcement is combing the rivers and seas with automatic rifles, which causes social consequences between the government and civilians. As society has grown more aware of these problems, many scientists and activists have made it their mission to save the ecosystems and minimize the caviar trade due to its irreversible effects.


Works Cited

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Kellert, S.R., & Wilson, E.O. (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis.

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Kosals, L. (1998). Shadow Economy as a feature of Russian Capitalism.

Lawson, T. (2002) Traded towards extinction? The role of the UK in wildlife trade.

Ludwig, A., Lieckfeldt, D., & Jahrl, J. (2015). Mislabeled and counterfeit sturgeon caviar from Bulgaria and Romania.

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Raymakers, C. (2002) Study on the social and economic aspects of illegal fishing in the Caspian sea. Traffic Europe, Brussels.

Van Uhm, D., & Siegel, D. (2016). The illegal trade in black caviar. Trends in Organized Crime.

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Zabyelina, Y. (2014). The “fishy” business: a qualitative analysis of the illicit market in black caviar.


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Perspectives on Black Markets V.6 Copyright © by Valerie Antenucci is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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