Sturgeon Watchers: Already in Ukraine

LIFE for Danube Sturgeons, News
WWF, one of the organisations that dedicates significant amount of time and resources in the protection of sturgeons,

launched a brand new initiative called Sturgeon Watchers, part of the second LIFE-funded project on sturgeons ‘LIFE for Danube Sturgeons’. WWF in Ukraine borrowed the original idea of Sturgeon Watchers from the volunteer programme for the conservation of spawning sites on the Wolf River, Wisconsin, USA and adapted it to resemble the format of ichthyological practice. It is the first time in Europe and for WWF worldwide to test this approach, its practical applicability for the participants and helpfulness for the sturgeons in the region.

Sturgeon Watchers was held with the participation of students of the Odessa Ecological and Kherson Agricultural universities. The students spent five days in Vylkove (Odessa Oblast, the Danube Delta) together with the team of WWF in Ukraine, representatives of the Danube Biosphere Reserve, Fishery Patrol inspectors and border guards of the State Border Guard Service (Vylkove Department) and also, the PRIDE project participants.

The town where you can see sturgeons

The student practice started with a visit to the local museum of the town of Vylkove – a vivid fishing community located on the Danube river, 220 km south-west away from Odessa and several minutes from the Romanian border. The city is often called the “Ukrainian Venice”, because of its numerous water channels that reach to homes and farms.

Sturgeon Watchers in Vylkove © Maria Nikitina

The ichthyologist and expert of WWF in Ukraine, Inna Hoch, shared, “In the local museum together with the students we’ve realised how diverse and interesting the ‘sturgeon’ past of the town was: giant beluga in the catch, black caviar that could be canned right here, in Vylkove. Unfortunately, the golden times of sturgeon fishing went by, but by joining efforts with the community, public organisations and authorities, we can significantly improve the state of the sturgeon populations.”

Water Raid © WWF

During the first day, the Sturgeon Watchers patrolled the Danube waters together with the border guards of the Vylkove department. That had been preceded by a series of thematic lectures of leading sturgeon specialists from the Southern Scientific Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) and the Danube Biosphere Reserve (DBR) such as Sergiy Bushuev (he presented the features of sturgeon and the methods of sturgeon research), Inna Hoch (she lectured on the protection of sturgeons in Ukraine) and Konstiantyn Balatsky (who talked about the DBR’s restoration work on human-transformed territories and the importance of measures to regulate and protect rare fish species).

Undoubtedly, for the students the most impressive part while patrolling down the river was the opportunity to witness a 4-year-old Stellate Sturgeon tangled up in a fisherman’s net. The fish was freed and released back into the water exactly like the legal regulations stipulate.

Visit to the feed base, aquaculture sturgeons and the ‘Fish Banks’ game

Next on the agenda were activities to explore the feed base of sturgeon, which was supported by the representatives of another project, independent from LIFE for Danube Sturgeons, that is, the PRIDE project. Alexandre Gogaladze, Mykhailo Son and Leya Rausch took the Sturgeon Watchers to the Sasyk water reservoir, located on the territory of the Tatarbunary and Kilia rayons of the Odessa oblast, to study the variety of mollusks that are part of the feed base of sturgeon and can be found at the reservoir’s shores.

“For the first time, we learned in detail about the changes in the Danube’s natural ecosystem and the diversity of the Pontic-Caspian relics, such as mollusks,” said Mariya Nikitina, one of the Sturgeon Watchers team members.

The practice then focused on exploring the matter of aquaculture sturgeon farms, in particular sturgeon breeding. Although there are very few in Ukraine, aquaculture farms are the only legal method to produce and offer for sale sturgeon products. To make those lectures and discussions more memorable for the audience, several practical exercises followed among which was the ecological game ‘Fish Banks’. The game was created by the famous American professor Dennis Meadows in 1987. By playing it, he tried to explain the possible effects of the sustainable use of natural resources and dangers of the opposite approach.

The state’s legal regulations

At the Equator of Practice, the students became acquainted with the principles of the International Convention CITES regarding the international trade of wildlife products and the regulations of the transport of sturgeon products across national borders. Also, the students were given more information about state control in the area of protection of rare sturgeon species by Bogdan Gumenyuk, who shared the perks of his work in the State Border Guard Service, and also by the expert of the State Fisheries Agency of Ukraine – Yury Lukarzhevsky, who talked about Odessa Fisheries Patrol. After that, the Sturgeon Watchers took part in a real Fisheries Patrol raid.

“The raid in the water made it possible to better understand the profession of border guard and fish inspector,” said Iryna Rogachko, a participant in the practice. “We have analysed many professional and life situations which will allow us to draw conclusions about future work.”

“This practice is very important for the preservation of valuable species of fish both in the Danube and in other water objects of Ukraine,” said Sergey Yurchuk, Head of the Odessa Fisheries Patrol. “This event had both social and educational functions. It can become an additional leverage in raising awareness among the youth and general public.”

The Danube Day

During the Danube Day celebrations in Vylkove, the WWF in Ukraine team and the Sturgeon Watchers prepared a photo exhibition, entertaining and educational activities, such as several contests and quizzes. The competition of drawings on the asphalt was the most popular one among the local children, featuring a 4,5m long Beluga, several smaller sturgeons and other water species. With help from the Sturgeon Watchers, the kids also created a symbolic wish-tree with paper sturgeons and wished for peace in the world, more candy and good luck, but also for the WWF team to go back to Vylkove.

Oleksandr Voloshkevich, Director of Danube Biosphere Reserve, re-captured the whole 5-day experience in several sentences when said, “With the Sturgeon Watchers initiative, it became obvious how many people at different levels worried about the problem of sturgeon protection and clearly understood the reasons of the ban on fishing sturgeons. Also, the children activities during the Danube Day had a deep effect on their parents too because the idea entered the families through the children. All these activities largely influenced the Danube fishing association. They initiated the meeting of fishermen of all 11 enterprises, where each of them was warned that in a case of illegal sturgeon fishing they would be fired immediately.”

Among the other benefits of the initiative and of the project as a whole are the upcoming changes in various official regulations such as “Fishing rules in the Black Sea” and the Administrative Code of Ukraine.

WWF in Ukraine thanks for the assistance to:
  • Danube Biosphere Reserve, and personally Oleksandr Voloshkevych, Tetiana Balatska and Konstiantyn Balatskiy;
  • the “Vylkove” department of the Izmail border detachment of the State Border Guard Service, and personally Bogdan Gumeniuk;
  • Odessa Fisheries Patrol, and personally Sergiy Yurchuk, Oleg Potulsky and Mykhailo Levchenko;
  • Southern Scientific Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine), and personally Sergiy Bushev and Sergiy Kudriashov;
  • Kherson State Agrarian University, and personally Viktor Shevchenko and Yuri Pylypenko, and the extraordinary students’ team;
  • Odessa State Ecological University, and personally Maria Nikitina and the inspiring team of masters students;
  • the team of the European PRIDE project – Alexandre Gogaladze, Mykhailo Son and Leya Rausch.