The caviar industry is shrinking in Iran and Russia due to rampant poaching, smuggling and a lack of resources management.
Japan is one of the biggest importers of the delicacy, but it lags behind Europe and North America in shutting out illegally obtained products.
This has sparked calls among environmental organizations for strong measures, including a labeling system to verify that the caviar was obtained legally.
According to a survey by Miami University and other institutions, the number of caviar processors in Iran and Russia began to drastically decrease in the 1980s due to indiscriminate fishing and habitat destruction.
The Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora said the legal caviar trade amounts to about 12 billion yen annually, but the illegal trade is five times larger.
To prevent illegal fishing and smuggling, the CITES secretariat decided in January 2004 to require exporters and traders to label all products to show their origin.
The secretariat has also asked exporters to submit documents showing the caviar has been produced with due consideration to the preservation of resources.
But since these measures have gone unheeded, the secretariat in January opted to impose a temporary ban in the caviar trade.
It asked Japan and other importers to verify the labels and introduce a domestic system to use similar labels when repacking and reselling the products.
According to Traffic East Asia-Japan, a private-sector organization monitoring wildlife trade, Japanese imports totaled about 16 tons of caviar in 2002.
It ranked fourth after the United States, Germany and France. On the Japanese market, 18 grams of caviar can fetch as much as 30,000 yen.
The United States, the largest consumer, decided last fall to ban imports of beluga caviar from Russia and other producers.
The European Union has meanwhile started to require exporters and traders to put on labels. But Japan has so far failed to take strong measures.
Japan has been cool about labeling. An official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said there is no precedent for such action.
But Hisako Kiyono, an official of Traffic East Asia-Japan, said that if measures in Europe and North America progress, illegal products shut out there will flow into Japan, where regulations are not strict.
“It is an urgent duty for Japan to introduce the internationally agreed labeling system and strengthen shoreline measures against illegal products.”