In only the last month, Romanian law enforcement agencies reported three cases of wildlife crime involving sturgeon, species on the brink of extinction. Sterlet, Stellate and Russian sturgeons were discovered in fishing nets by law enforcement and later released. This is not the first recent case of sturgeon poaching in the area. In October 2019, Romanian Danube Delta Police rescued a 200 kg poached Beluga sturgeon.
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. There had already been strong indications of more sturgeon poaching activity in Bulgaria and Ukraine. Hundreds of karmaci hook lines were discovered and confiscated by authorities in recent weeks, from which 2 Beluga sturgeon were rescued and released. There have also been increased attacks on protected birds of prey across the region.
During the second half of April, Romanian Environmental Guards released 4 sturgeon specimens. After receiving a tip, two teams of commissioners from the National Environmental Guard carried out a 10-day inspection along the Black Sea coast and into the strictly protected Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. The inspections led to the seizure of 33 unmarked and abandoned sets of commercial fishing gear; including 27 textile nets, 2 monofilament nets and 4 pond nets. In total, approximately 1,870 meters of fishing line and nets were confiscated. Along the Black Sea coast, 4 sturgeons (Sterlet and Stellate) were found caught in textile nets and released back into their natural environment.
May 9-16, 2020 8 dolphins and 11 sturgeons were released by the Danube Delta Police Service. The Danube Delta Police Service joined forces with inspectors from the National Agency for Fisheries and Aquaculture, and ecological inspectors from the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve (DDBRA) to carry out new inspections throughout the Romanian Black Sea, including the Biosphere Reserve. Eight dolphins and 11 Stellate and Russian sturgeon were found entangled in four ohane nets (a special, thick fishing net designed especially for catching sturgeons). All specimens were released back into the water.
On May 15, 2020, DDBRA inspectors from the Somova-Parcheș Aquatic Complex discovered 11 Sterlets entangled in fishing nets. They seized 8 sets of fishing gear (350 meters) and saved 11 Sterlets and approximately 20 kg of undersized fish from poachers.
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-CEE is cooperating with Interpol to train local law enforcement, prosecutors, police and customs officers to be more effective in their fight against illegal logging and working on the root causes of 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 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 brings 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-CEE and INTERPOL have begun to create a network of experts throughout Central and Eastern Europe to improve the fight against forest crime. Workshops have already been held for police, prosecutors, forest management and environmental organisations in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia.
Cracking down on illegal and unregulated wildlife trade is important to prevent future zoonotic epidemics and safeguard people’s well-being and lives. 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. Future pandemics will only be avoided if people learn to live in harmony with nature.
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. The fragmentation of rivers by transversal structures like hydropower dams or flood protection measures poses a threat to natural fish populations if they are no longer able to migrate between important habitats like spawning grounds, feeding grounds and wintering habitats. Transnational management and restoration actions to re-establish these corridors as migration routes, as well as stocking with indigenous species are essential until we have achieved a self-sustaining population again.
WWF is engaged in sturgeon protection measures in most Danube countries, for example through the Life for Danube Sturgeons Project. 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. Protecting sturgeon and their habitats is crucial if we are to achieve the New Deal for Nature and People’s goal of zero biodiversity and habitat loss by 2030.
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