That looks rare – I’ll kill that one

12 12 2008

Here’s an interesting (and disturbing) one from Conservation Letters by Gault and colleagues entitled Consumers’ taste for rarity drives sturgeons to extinction.

I like caviar, I have to admit. I enjoy the salty fishy-ness and the contrast it makes with the appropriate selection of wine (bubbly or otherwise). I guess a lot of other people like it too, to the extent that worldwide sturgeon population’s have been  hammered (all 27 species are listed in CITES Appendix I or II, and 15 species are still heavily exploited). Indeed, in the Caspian Sea from where 90 % of caviar comes, sturgeon populations have declined by 90 % since the late 1980s. Admittedly, I haven’t had sturgeon caviar very often, and I doubt I’ll ever eat it again.

Using a set of simple ‘preference’ experiments on epicurean (French) human subjects, Gault and colleagues found that when told that a particular type of caviar was rarer than the others (when in reality, they two choices were identical), these refined gourmets generally tended to claim that the rarer one tasted better.

This means that humans have a tendency to place exaggerated value on harvested species when they think they’re rare (in most instances, rarity is itself the result of over-exploitation by humans). This so-called ‘anthropogenic Allee effect‘ (see Courchamp et al. 2006) basically means that at least for the wildlife-based luxury market, there’s little chance that calls for reduced harvest will be heard because people continually adjust their willingness to pay more. This turns into a spiralling extinction vortex for the species concerned.

What to do? Ban all trade of caviar? This might do it, but with the reluctance to reduce highly profitable industries like this (see previous post on tuna over-exploitation here), there’s a strong incentive even for the harvesters to drive themselves out of a job. Consumer education (and a good dose of guilt) might help too, but I have my doubts.

CJA Bradshaw

© S. Crownover courtesy of Caviar Emptor

© S. Crownover courtesy of Caviar Emptor

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