Sturgeons

Sturgeons are iconic fish of ancient origin, present already in the time of dinosaurs, they present a cultural, economic and natural value in many rivers of the Northern hemisphere and have become symbols for healthy and free flowing river systems. In Europe, one of the very few regions still holding viable, naturally reproducing sturgeon populations, is in the Lower Danube in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.

But not only the river, also  the Danube Delta and marine areas in the North Western Black Sea have to be considered home to migratory sturgeon, that do hatch in the freshwater, but then migrate to the Black Sea where they spend several years before they mature and migrate back to the spawning places in the River. And unlike salmons, sturgeon undertake this journey several times during their long life span

Not long ago, magnificent, 7-meter long beluga sturgeons migrated up the Danube as far as Germany and provided livelihoods for numerous fishing communities. No longer. The disruption of migration routes and the overfishing fueled by high economic gains for the luxury product of sturgeon, led to a collapse of sturgeon populations. In the Danube, historically six species existed. Yet two are believed to be extinct already and of the remaining four species three are critically endangered, IUCN's highest threat category before extinction. 

Globally, the situation is not better. Human pressure earned sturgeon an unfamous world record: they represent the most endangered group of species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with few natural habitats left for them to call home. 

The urgency for protection has been stated in many scientific and policy documents, yet implementation of conservation measures is slow and WWF voices clear calls for action.

ILLEGAL FISHING & TRADE:

All Black Sea and Lower Danube countries have legally banned fishing of sturgeon, yet illegal activities including the use of illegal fishing gear, the poaching and consecutive selling of sturgeon remains a high threat in the region. WWF’s new market survey found that one third of the sturgeon meat and caviar products in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine were sold illegally. Specifically, 19% of all samples came from wild sturgeon, which cannot currently be legally caught or traded anywhere in the region, while another 12% did not comply with international trade regulations. More than 200 cases of illegal activities were reported by authorities over 4 years in these countries.  In Bulgaria alone, 594 illegal hook lines were detected, adding up to more than 23.5 km.

Assuming that these numbers only reveal the tip of the iceberg of hidden illegalities, WWF calls on authorities to remain committed to the fight against this wildlife crime and has developed various reports and training material to support this fight. Please read our latest reports on wildlife trafficking of sturgeon and  on the Romanian ban of illegal fishing of wild sturgeon and find out more on www.danube-sturgeons.org.

BY-CATCH

Little is known on the numbers of sturgeon that land as by-catch in the nets of fishermen. Legally all caught sturgeon must be released back to the water, dead or alive and only recently an obligation to report sturgeon by-catch was introduced, but so far no official reports exist. Single fishermen, concerned about the decline of sturgeons,  have engaged in sturgeon conservation and demonstrated best-practice by releasing accidentally caught sturgeon

HABITAT LOSS

The construction of dams in the main stem of the Danube has led to a blockage of their migration route. Yet 800 km of free flowing river stretch in the Lower Danube connects the Black Sea to their last spawning and feeding grounds. These key habitats must be protected against further degradation, caused by dredging activities, navigation constructions or other infrastructure buildings.

Understanding where these habitats are and monitoring fish is a critical prerequisite for any meaningful protection measures. More information can be found here.

BREEDING & RELEASE

Unfortunately sturgeon stocks have been depleted to an extent where self-recovery needs to be supported by breeding and release programmes. This is a last resort conservation measure and must be done based on scientific guidance and in a coherent manner in the whole river basin. Supported by WWF, the Danube Sturgeon Task Force developed ex-situ recommendations that explain what needs to be taken into account in this difficult undertaking. 

Engagement of Fishermen

Fishermen have been part of the problem and must now become part of the solution to conserve sturgeon, and many of them are also concerned about their decline. For decades fishing communities have thrived from sturgeon fisheries and the trade of their products and after fishing was banned they have been left with no alternatives for income generation.

There is a need to support these communities in creating a sustainable future, with alternative income streams and engage them actively in conservation actions, such as sturgeon monitoring. The recovery of sturgeon populations to an extent where sustainable fishing may be feasible again will be an undertaking of decades rather than years.

Regional Cooperation and Political Support

Saving sturgeon from extinction is a complex undertaking and can only be achieved through cross-sectoral and cross-border cooperation, and a strong political will. Sectors and institutions needed to cooperate towards sturgeon conservation include fishery authorities responsible for enforcing fishing bans, Ministries for Environment responsible for monitoring and overall conservation plan and Ministries for Water and Sea Areas responsible for securing the habitats as well as the navigation and dredging sector which can either threaten or spare these habitats. It also needs a cooperation of scientific institutions to share and exchange information such as monitoring data.

In an international River Basin such as the Danube where action or non-action of one country has effect on shared stocks, cooperation across borders and coherence of conservation actions is key to success.

WWF urges Danube region Governments to implement the PanEuropean Action Plan for Sturgeons  adopted by 50 states (including all Danube countries) under the Bern Convention in November 2018 and endorsed from implementation under the EU Habitats Directive in 2019. The Plan provides a framework for national and regional action.

Adequate funding instruments must be put in place for long-term conservation actions. This includes a funding plan outlining national and international, private and government funding options, and a strategy for national programming of EU funds to supply part of these resources.

 

 

Beluga sturgeon

Beluga sturgeon

© Phyllis Rachler

Beluga sturgeon

Beluga sturgeon

© Lubomir Hlasek

Sturgeon releasing

Sturgeon releasing

© George Caracaș