12 April 2021 - WWF’s new market survey provides first-time evidence of the actual scale of poaching and illegal trade of meat and caviar from wild-caught sturgeon in the Lower Danube Region; specifically in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. This is one of the last places on Earth where critically endangered sturgeons survive and still reproduce. Illegal sturgeon fishing and trade in their products are often cited as significant threats to many sturgeon populations worldwide. However, until now, substantiated data has rarely been available. The survey provides proof that illegal fishing and trade in wild sturgeon is happening on a regional level and on a rather serious scale. The unique survey methodology combined official data on illegal fishing activities from competent authorities and the results of a large-scale market survey and forensic analysis of meat and caviar samples in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine between October 2016 and July 2020.
“Very few market surveys on the sturgeon trade exist, and this is the only one so far that combines 2 state-of-the-art forensic methods, which is crucial to detect illegal trade.” says Arne Ludwig, IZW genetics expert, Co-Chair IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group and co-author of the report.
Samples were collected in the Lower Danube and in the north-western Black Sea region from sturgeon populations that share the same migratory routes. Testing points covered the entire trade chain and included various types of retailers such as shops and supermarkets, restaurants and bars, local markets, aquaculture facilities, intermediaries, fishermen and online offers. All samples underwent DNA and isotope testing.
Results and Conclusions
- Isotope analysis proved that wild sturgeon products were being sold in all four countries. Of the 145 samples tested, 19% (27 out of all 145) proved to be from wild sturgeon - 25 were meat and 2 were caviar;
- 17 samples of caviar (12% of all samples and 29% of all caviar samples) were sold without compliance with mandatory CITES regulations: illegal import into the country of purchase, sold without mandatory CITES labelling, or not having correct codes for species or country of origin;
- Suppliers (salespersons, waiters, etc.) provided deceptive information. In one case, meat sold as farmed was proven to be wild. The reverse was also true in several cases when products declared as wild sturgeon proved to be farmed, or to be meat from European catfish or Nile perch. This indicates a worrying consumer demand for illegal, wild-caught sturgeon products; and
- Even though all fishing and trade of wild Danube sturgeon species was prohibited in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine during the study period, and only the catch of Sterlet above 40 cm total length was allowed in Serbia until the end of 2018, 214 cases of illegal poaching-related incidents were recorded in Romania (82 cases), Bulgaria (82 cases) and Ukraine (50 cases) between January 2016-December 2020.2 These incidents included seizures of illegal fishing gear for targeting sturgeon, seizures of actual sturgeon in boats or fishing nets, transportation of poached sturgeon, and sale of caviar or meat of poached sturgeon. In Bulgaria alone, 594 illegal hook lines were detected, adding up to more than 23.5 km. Just last month there were several new reported poaching cases in Ukraine and Romania.
“This is the first assessment of the volume of sturgeon poaching and trade along the lower Danube and Black Sea – and even if we have to assume that we found just the tip of the iceberg, it shows how serious the impact on the last wild sturgeons still is and how crucial our fight is to save them.” - Jutta Jahrl, WWF Project Manager
- Enhanced controls of domestic trade;
- Control of CITES caviar labelling requirements;
- Improved inter-agency cooperation and coordination;
- Increased border controls;
- Use of State-of-the-art forensic analysis; and
- Conducting more and recurrent market surveys.
The survival of these highly threatened wild sturgeon species in Central and Eastern Europe is dependent on continuous and increased efforts to reduce the threat of wild sturgeon trafficking. WWF’s report is designed with the aspiration to shed light on the situation, inform responsible actors, contribute to the intelligence for future enforcement activities, foster the exchange of relevant data among different authorities and between sturgeon range countries, and encourage regular market surveys by the responsible authorities. Opportunities must be seized under the EU Biodiversity Strategy and the upcoming UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Kunming, China to shut down illegal wildlife trade and preserve freshwater ecosystems in Europe and abroad.
For more information:
WWF-Austria and WWF Central and Eastern Europe
Tel: +43 1 48817 264, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Fact sheet
- The report will be launched in Bulgarian later this year.
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.
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 per cent since 1970, and mega-fish such as sturgeons by a catastrophic 94 percent.
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, but poaching is one of the significant causes of this negative trend.
This activity was part of the EU-funded LIFE project "Sustainable Protection of Lower Danube Sturgeons by Preventing and Counteracting Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade" (LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS, LIFE 15 GIE/AT/001004), focused on Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
 Three lines of DNA evidence were combined to determine the species or hybrid of origin, allowing a high degree of certainty of the results: (1) Mitochondrial DNA sequence polymorphism for species identification (2) microsatellites for ploidy and (3) Single Nucleotide Polymorphism genotyping for hybrid determination. Stable isotope analysis was applied to deliver information on the “production method” (wild versus farmed) of samples, using the proxy of the isotope composition of sturgeon feed, and in parts on the geographical origin.
2 No data could be obtained for Serbia.