30 March 2021 - There are strong indications of increased sturgeon poaching activity in Romania and Ukraine. The cooperation and effectiveness of law enforcement is more important than ever, as both individuals and organised crime could try to profit from the COVID-19 movement restrictions and increase their poaching activities.
Two sturgeon poaching cases discovered in Romania this month
On 4 March 2021, Tulcea County Border Police stopped two Romanian men in the village of Grindu for a control check. The men were discovered to be transporting a 140 kg, 2.5 metre Beluga sturgeon in a wagon. They declared that they had caught the sturgeon in the Danube and intended to sell it. The National Agency for Fishing and Aquaculture in cooperation with the Border Police released the fish back into the Danube.
Home searches carried out on 20 March in Tulcea, Galați and Crișan, Romania by the Danube Delta Police revealed five fishing and aquaculture violations. Among the 63 kilograms of seized fish and 17.3 kilograms of roe, 7 kg of sturgeon meat and 1 kg of caviar were discovered.
The police are conducting investigations into all of these cases. Fishing and selling sturgeon and sturgeon products is prohibited in Romania until 20 April 2021. The order to continue the ban is currently being discussed by the authorities.
Beluga and Russian sturgeon poaching cases in Ukraine
On 21 March, state inspectors of the Kherson Region's Fish Protection Patrol detained two people during a raid at Dzharylhatsky Bay in the Ukrainian waters of the Black Sea. The patrol discovered Red Book listed endangered aquatic species in their possession; including 14 stone crabs, 3 turbots, 3 Beluga sturgeon and 1 Russian sturgeon weighing a total of 34 kg. The stone crabs were returned to the water alive, but the sturgeons were already dead. The violators will be fined 351,000 UAH (approx. 12,000 EUR) and face prosecution.
“We appreciate the efforts of law enforcement agencies in detecting and investigating such cases,” says Beate Striebel, WWFs Sturgeon Initiative Lead. “Each single case may seem neglectable, but combined, the impact on these critically endangered fish is a huge concern.”
Addressing poaching in Central and Eastern Europe
Sturgeon and other migratory fish species represent the historical, economic and natural heritage of the Danube. Furthermore, they are indicators of the ecological status of the river’s watercourses, especially concerning the function of the river as an ecological corridor. Yet, according to the recently released World’s Forgotten Fishes Report, populations of migratory freshwater fish have fallen by 76 percent since 1970, and mega-fish such as sturgeons by a catastrophic 94 percent.
Currently, there is a complete ban of sturgeon fishing in the Danube and the Black Sea. However, larger fish that swim upstream to reproduce still fall prey to poaching because of the high price their caviar and meat fetches on the black market. Central and Eastern Europe is not only a point of origin for poached animals, animal parts and illegal timber; it is also a recognised global transit point for these products. WWF Central and Eastern Europe is cooperating with Interpol to train local law enforcement, prosecutors, police and customs officers to be more effective in their fight against poaching of strictly protected sturgeon and large carnivores such as lynx, brown bears and wolves. According to Interpol, environmental crime now ranks as the 3rd largest criminal sector worldwide. The development of this criminal sector has been rapid. Just a year ago it was 4th. Interpol has noticed a steady 5-7% annual increase in environmental crime. Even worse, a clear connection has been marked between environmental crime and other types of crimes such as drugs, the weapons trade and money laundering. Environmental crimes bring high profit with low risk, and if there is already black market network established, it makes sense for them to use it for different types of products.
WWF will be releasing a report about sturgeon trafficking in the Lower Danube in April, which for the first time combines data around illegal fishing from fishing authorities with a market survey looking into illegalities in the sturgeon caviar and meat trade in the region.
The future for the Danube sturgeons
If we can save sturgeons, we will save so much more – helping to revive the rivers they live in for the benefit of people and nature. WWF Central and Eastern Europe is engaged in sturgeon protection measures in most Danube countries. Our priority is to identify and protect the critical habitats of the remaining four sturgeon species (Huso huso, Acipenser stellatus, A. ruthenus, A. gueldenstaedtii) in the Lower Danube and north-western Black Sea, as well as to reduce pressure on their remaining populations by addressing poaching and ensuring protection.
Biodiversity must be protected in order to protect our own health as well as the planet's. This is why the EU Biodiversity Strategy under the European Green Deal must provide a strong push towards shutting down illegal wildlife trade and preserving ecosystems in Europe and abroad. In 2021, the world also has the opportunity to secure an ambitious and implementable global biodiversity agreement at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Kunming, China – one that must, for the first time, pay just as much attention to protecting and restoring our freshwater life support systems as the world’s forests and oceans.
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Sturgeons used to be present in almost all European rivers, but today seven out of the eight species of sturgeon on the European continent are threatened with extinction. Sturgeons have survived the dinosaurs, but now teeter on the brink of extinction. The Black Sea Region is crucial to the survival of these species in Europe. The Danube and the Rioni River in Georgia are the only two rivers remaining in Europe where migrating sturgeons reproduce naturally. The main reasons are overfishing and loss of habitat through dams that block migration routes or in-river constructions, facilitating navigation. These are often detrimental to the feeding and spawning habitats, necessary for sturgeon survival. Within the EU the only river with naturally reproducing sturgeon populations remains the Danube. Crucial but no longer reproductive stocks are left in the Po River in Italy and the Gironde in France. Restocking activities take place in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, France, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands. Our priority is to identify and protect the critical habitats of the remaining four sturgeon species (Huso huso, Acipenser stellatus, A. ruthenus, A. gueldenstaedtii) in the Lower Danube and north-western Black Sea, as well as to reduce pressure on their remaining populations by addressing poaching and ensuring protection.