Skip to main content

The “fishy” business: a qualitative analysis of the illicit market in black caviar


The Volga-Caspian basin, once the largest habitat of sturgeon species, became a hotbed of wildlife crime in the 1990s. With the rising demand for caviar in various parts of the world, caviar trafficking has grown to unprecedented levels, having put Caspian sturgeons under the risk of absolute extinction. Two decades later, as the Caspian sturgeon populations have been radically depleted, North American supplies of sturgeon species are targeted by criminal masterminds as an alternative illicit source of black caviar. This article identifies some of the trends in the development of the illicit market in black caviar. The analysis utilizes the idea of criminogenic asymmetries developed by Nikos Passas to examine the dynamics of and the driving forces behind this illicit market. Beyond the application of Passas’ framework, the article offers a detailed descriptive analysis of poaching activities and caviar trafficking schemes based on data retrieved from public reports, court files, news media and interviews with officials and journalists.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. “Serious crime” is defined by the United Nations Conventions on Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC 2000) as “conduct constituting an offence punishable by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least 4 years or a more serious penalty” (CTOC, Art. 2(b)).

  2. TOC refers to cross-border activities that supply goods or services, the production, sales or marketing of which are either completely prohibited by governments and/or international organizations or partially proscribed to comply with special licenses, certification, taxation and other regulations. For a legal definition, see (CTOC 2000) (Art. 2; 3).

  3. Historically, only the roe of wild beluga sturgeons from the Caspian Sea were referred to as caviar. Today, roe of other fish, including but not limited to other species of sturgeon, are also called caviar. This article is exclusively focused on studying the illicit market in black caviar, i.e. the product of the Acipenseridae family of sturgeons such as beluga, ossetra and sevruga. It should be noted that caviar of the Acipenseridae family is not to be confused with other caviar-bearing fish families. For example, the fish of the Salmonidae family are sources of red caviar.

  4. The final version of the dissertation is not available to the public but can be requested from unitn-eprints—the institutional archive of the University of Trento.

  5. In order to avoid the confidentiality problem, names of interviewees were not disclosed anywhere in the text.

  6. Due to data limitations, no person mentioned in the context of alleged offence in this article should be considered guilty unless supported by a juridical verdict of guilt. Most criminal cases have been provided to illustrate the theoretical argument based on a de facto presumption of guilt. These cases, however, have not always been supported by a de jure statement that is the only legal condition to validate the involvement of a suspect in offence.

  7. Paronyms criminal and criminogenic should not be confused. Criminality is a state, quality or fact of being criminal such as a criminal practice or act. When something is criminogenic, it is characterized by propensity, predisposition or an inclination to criminal offense.

  8. This concept has been borrowed from Gilman et al. (2011: 16).

  9. Sturgeons, although sometimes mistakenly considered as a sea fish, are, however, river fish because they can spawn only in fresh water.

  10. Interview with a press-secretary of MVD, Moscow 2010.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Interview with a journalist (via phone), Astrakhan 2010.

  14. Ibid.

  15. The CITES bad was partially lifted and legally allowed to sell only limited amounts of sturgeon caviar on the world market (a subject to quotas for each country). More information about export quotas can be found on CITES website:

  16. Interview with a journalist (via phone), queryAstrakhan 2010

  17. Interview with a press-secretary of MVD, Moscow 2010.

  18. The USFWS banned imports of beluga caviar and other beluga products from the Caspian Sea since 6 October 2005 after listing beluga sturgeon under the US Endangered Species Act.

  19. North American sturgeons are often known as white sturgeons that are concentrated along the West coast of North America. White sturgeons are sturgeons of the same Acipenseridae family as Caspian sturgeons. Some of the representatives of white sturgeons are paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) and shovelnose (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus).

  20. Among other things, the Lacey Act makes it unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase fish that were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State, or to attempt to do so. Such conduct constitutes a felony crime if the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct involving the purchase or sale, offer to purchase or sell, or intent to purchase or sell, fish with a market value in excess of USD 350, knowing that the fish were taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of, or in a manner unlawful under, a law or regulation of any State.

  21. According to Art. 22(1) of TRIPS (Part II: Standards concerning the availability, scope and use of Intellectual Property Rights, Section 3: Geographical Indications), geographical indications are “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

  22. In Art. 2(1) of the this Agreement, “appellation of origin” is defined as “the geographical denomination of a country, region, or locality, which serves to designate a product originating therein, the quality or characteristics of which are due exclusively or essentially to the geographical environment, including natural and human factors.”


Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yuliya G. Zabyelina.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Zabyelina, Y.G. The “fishy” business: a qualitative analysis of the illicit market in black caviar. Trends Organ Crim 17, 181–198 (2014).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Illicit markets
  • Wildlife crime
  • Caviar
  • Criminogenic asymmetries