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Why the EU’s ban on Russian caviar is all hype and no bite

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Brussels boasted that it’s hitting a crucial Russian industry by banning the country’s caviar imports — but the actual impact is likely to be just a drop in the ocean.

The European Commission touted the ban as part of a broader fifth package of sanctions earlier this month meant to punish Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, partly spurred by reports of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the town of Bucha. After previously holding back on an import ban of luxury goods like vodka and caviar, the new text included them and states that the restrictions will hit “goods which generate significant revenues for Russia.”

“Our focus is clear — we are not targeting ordinary Russian people. We are targeting the Kremlin, the political and economic elites supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

But Russia actually produces very little caviar for the European market, let alone globally.

Although caviar was historically harvested from the Caspian Sea and sold by Russia and Iran, the overfishing of the sturgeon that lay the eggs led to a global ban on wild fishing, prompting many sellers to develop their own in-house aquacultures instead.

Today, Russia accounts for very little of global caviar production, making just 52 tons of the gourmet food item in 2019, compared to the 688 tons produced worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

On top of this, Russia is a largely closed market, meaning that in 2020, it exported just 1 ton of the caviar it produced — while the leading exporter, China, exported 123 tons, according to a recent EU study. Meanwhile, EU member states produced 164 tons.

EU caviar imports from Russia are also worth relatively little to the bloc. In 2021, the EU imported €38.3 million worth of the elite food from Iceland, but just €3.4 million worth from Russia — which was its seventh largest trading partner for caviar.

Russia is also often associated with one of the most expensive types of caviar in the world, Ossetra, from the critically endangered Russian sturgeon. But as with other kinds of caviar, it can now only be legally produced through specially bred sturgeons in aquacultures. A worker at Petrossian, one of the most well-known European caviar sellers, confirmed to POLITICO that none of their Ossetra caviar is imported from Russia.

That’s why some in the industry argue the EU’s caviar ban is more symbolic than sanctioning.

“To most citizens in Europe, this will sound like something efficient,” said Benoît Thomassen, chairman of the Sturgeon Commission at the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers. 

“To me, it’s just to show people that the European Union is doing something and is not targeting poor people — it will really have no effect and they are aware of that,” he said. “It’s easier to make that kind of sanction than to stop the gas and the oil importation from Russia.”

Thomassen said he had emphasized to EU officials that the measure would have a limited impact, during frequent consultations with the Commission’s Directorate General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Still, he admitted he did not know whether this information was relayed to the relevant sanctions unit.

The new sanctions may also be easy to get around.

Under the international so-called CITES agreement, meant to ensure the trade of certain goods doesn’t threaten endangered animals and plants, caviar traders are required to label their stock with a special code, which includes details about its country of origin. 

But Thomassen said sellers already often hide small stocks originating from other countries within their larger shipments, while using their own national CITES code for the entire load. Some may even bribe border control officials, he said.

The Commission did not immediately respond to POLITICO for comment.

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