Overfishing & the Caviar Trade

Overfishing – once legally and now illegally – is the main direct threat to the survival of Danube sturgeons.

The main driver for overexploitation is the extremely high economic value of sturgeon caviar. Sturgeon meat is also in demand as delicacy. There are flourishing black markets in the whole region and illegal caviar from Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine is found in several other European countries. According to a TRAFFIC report compiled for WWF in 2011, a total of 14 seizures of illegal caviar originating from Bulgaria (27.5 kg in five seizures) and Romania (25 kg in nine seizures) were reported by six EU Member States between 2000 and 2009. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania reported illegal caviar seizures themselves, which points to the need for increased law enforcement in the two countries.

The persistent illegal trade in caviar was demonstrated in a first-time caviar market survey in Romania and Bulgaria, conducted by WWF in 2011-2012, with 30 samples collected and DNA tested. The study confirmed that illegal fishing of sturgeons and illegal trade in caviar continues in spite of the moratoria. The findings demonstrate clear contraventions of CITES labeling provisions and the European Union Wildlife Trade Regulations. In addition, they suggest that caviar of wild sturgeons is offered for sale.

Another study of sturgeon caviar sold by Ukrainian retailers was recently carried out by WWF-Ukraine, OSCE, Ukraine’s State Fishery Agency and volunteers. The 21 collected samples showed deficits in CITES labeling — both on the imported ones where CITES labeling is compulsory and on the Ukrainian ones where the labels are not required, but are still recommended.

In 2000 Ukraine became the first country in the region to ban sturgeon fishing both commercial, and amateur. Amateur and sport fishing of sturgeons is prohibited in the Black sea and all freshwater bodies. Rules of industrial fishing in water bodies of Ukraine clearly states that fishing for species included in the Red Book is forbidden. Since 2000 harvesting of Acipenser stellatus and Acipenser gueldenstaedtii (which had not been in the Red Book at that time but were included in 2009) is allowed only for scientific purposes and reproduction. If sturgeons are in the by-catch, they must be released dead or alive and fishing vessel must inform local fishing authorities about the species and size of the sturgeons caught.

In 2006 Romania announced a ban on sturgeon fishing. The 10-year ban expired at the end of 2015 but was prolonged for another 5 years. Bulgarian authorities followed suit and in 2011 announced a one-year ban, which was later extended until the end of 2015 and then for another 5 years as well.

In Serbia, a complete fishing ban on five sturgeon species was introduced in 2005 for the period of 10 years and extended for another 10 years until 2025. Sterlet can still be caught with restrictions – individuals longer than 40 cm and not during the spawning period (March 1 – May 31). However, control of Sterlet catches is inadequate and there is an evident drop in population size and average individual size due to overfishing. The larger sturgeons can only be found in the remaining 17,5 km of the Lower Danube River below the Iron Gates II dam, except sporadic catches.

As sturgeon fishing is now largely illegal, facts are by their nature difficult to obtain, and most information is anecdotal. However, poaching still occurs rather widely and this is shown in interviews with fishermen and fisheries inspectors, as well as by the illegal, sturgeon-targeting fishing gear which is confiscated regularly.

Illegal or unreported fishing can make up to 90% of sturgeon catch, and sturgeons will not survive unless fishing pressure is greatly reduced.