Only days after Romanian enforcement authorities reported a big operation against illegal fishing along the Danube River and in the Delta seizing 2 tonnes of fish, including sturgeon, WWF concluded an analysis of seizures recorded in 2021. Data collected by enforcement authorities in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine underlines that poaching remains a serious threat to wild sturgeon. Although fishing and selling wild sturgeon and products are prohibited in all these countries, the number of illegalities reported in 2021 – 57 cases - is comparable to those recorded between 2018 and 2020 ranging from 50 to 65. 

“National fishing authorities and relevant police forces, such as the border police, have gradually stepped up their efforts in the last years in detecting illegalities but also in data collection” says Beate Striebel, WWF’s Sturgeon Initiative Leader “yet the picture painted by the compiled data only shows the cases enforcement were able to detect. The real extent of the problem could be much bigger, and enforcement must continue at the same intensity, if not increase. The wild populations are at such low levels that every sturgeon poached is one too much”.

The 57 cases recorded throughout 2021 include the seizure of a minimum of 178 individual sturgeon and 154 illegal hook lines, a prohibited fishing gear specifically used to catch sturgeon. All karmaci hook lines were found in Bulgaria alone. Similar to other years, and despite the fact that hook lines amount to more than 5 km in length, no single sturgeon was seized in Bulgaria. Capacity shortage of law enforcers is a probable cause of why the Bulgarian inspectors seldom conduct controls on board and cannot report fish captures. Stoyan Mihov, WWF-Bulgaria Sturgeon Expert, states the need for adequate patrolling equipment, modern technologies and increased capacities of the enforcement authorities in order to change this practice.

As in recent years the level of detail with regard to captured fish species, weight, etc. varies greatly between countries and authorities because they are not provided with a mandatory template nor are they requested to share data with other countries via a standardized system. Romanian authorities reported for example 62 sturgeon individuals but also impressive quantities – 405 kg of fish meat and 7.6 kg of caviar – seized in 17 cases. 

In Ukraine a record number of 116 individual sturgeon (18 cases) were reported, almost as many as in 2019 and 2020 combined. Among them Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) which is among the rarest species being believed to be on the verge of extinction in the Danube. Inna Hoch, WWF sturgeon expert from Ukraine positively notesIt became evident that in 2021, enforcement authorities in Ukraine have taken serious steps towards increased transparency and have actively reported cases of seized sturgeon on their websites and social media channels “. This trend is feared to be reversed for 2022 with limited resources available for enforcement against wildlife crime on account of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.*

A regional compilation of illegal incidents and seizures, covering the period of 2016-2020, was published for the first time in a report on trafficking of sturgeon in the Lower Danube region. This new analysis with data from 2021 proves the need for continued action and increased efforts. Inter-agency cooperation between national police forces and fishing authorities, as well as cross border cooperation is needed to detect illegal fishing. Better and more uniform data registration as well as a system for data exchange between all concerned forces can be of great use to filing cases for prosecution and ultimately lead to deterrent penalties against sturgeon poaching.  “We can see that the poaching of sturgeon has been raised to the awareness of the responsible authorities concludes Beate Striebel, “but we all must make efforts to stop this wildlife crime, as the survival of sturgeon directly depends on it!”.

WWF is committed to “Halting Overexploitation of sturgeon through By-Catch, Illegal Fishing and Trade” and, in achieving it in the Lower Danube, WWF-CEE countries work with enforcement authorities to stop illegal catches and build conservation stewardship. The ongoing EU funded SWIPE (Successful Wildlife Crime Prosecution in Europe) project, aims to discourage and ultimately reduce wildlife crime by improving compliance with EU environmental law and increasing the number of successfully prosecuted offenses, for sturgeon and many other threatened wildlife.

*The current press release addresses the topic of seizure data. For WWF-CEE’s official position on the war in Ukraine, check out this statement.

Thumbnail image: © WWF-Romania, George Caracas

For more information:
Beate Striebel, Regional Sturgeon Coordinator, WWF Central and Eastern Europe & WWF Sturgeon Sturgeon Initiative coordinator
Email: bstriebel@wwfcee.org


© Danube Biosphere Reserve, M. Yakovlev

© WWF-Bulgaria, Stoyan Mihov

© WWF-Ukraine