While the fragmentation of rivers by transversal structures like hydropower dams pose a threat to natural fish populations if they are no longer able to migrate between important habitats, poaching remains one of the significant causes of the “dinosaurs of the Danube” nearing extinction.
26 April 2021 – Hot on the heels of the release of WWF’s sturgeon market survey last week that detailed the systemic poaching of critically endangered sturgeon along the Lower Danube, there is some fantastic conservation news from Romania. Romania has taken a firm decision to indefinitely extend its 5-year temporary ban on fishing and selling of all 6 wild sturgeon species and wild sturgeon products. The decision was supported by scientific evidence gathered during WWF’s Life for Danube Sturgeon Project. The decision follows a long campaign by WWF and many other conservation organisations. Romania has now joined other countries in the region where sturgeon fishing has been permanently banned. Bulgaria remains the last country in the Black Sea Basin without a permanent ban in place, but it extended its temporary ban on sturgeon fishing in its Danube and the Black Sea territory in January for another five years.
“Sturgeons are long-lived species and take decades to recover from their critical status. A fishing ban without the previous 5-year limitation is the right step forward,” – Beate Striebel, WWF’s Sturgeon Initiative Lead.
According to the sturgeon market survey conducted by WWF in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine in 2016-2020, poaching and the illegal market for caviar and wild sturgeon meat are among the most serious threats to sturgeon survival in the Lower Danube basin. During the survey, meat and caviar samples were gathered from retailers, restaurants, markets, intermediaries, aquaculture facilities, fishermen and online offers. Although fishing and selling wild sturgeon (and products) are prohibited in all these countries, the market survey showed that poaching and illegal selling and buying of wild sturgeon and sturgeon products are widespread in the region.
A very important condition of the bans in Bulgaria and Romania is the additional requirement for fishermen to report sturgeon bycatch and release it immediately in the respective river basin, regardless of their state of health. Bycatch remains a large threat for sturgeon species in the Danube and the Black Sea but very little is known about the numbers of fish that are accidentally caught. This change is significant because it will enable more efficient enforcement and help us better understand the volume and circumstances of bycatch. The ban also completely prohibits the use of any fishing equipment specifically used for catching sturgeon, such as ohanas and karmaks.
“Extending the ban indefinitely is an important step in sturgeon conservation. But it is not enough. An integrated and fair approach means working with fishing communities from communication, to involvement in conservation activities and alternative solutions to lost income, better law enforcement, proper research and monitoring, maintaining migration routes and last but not least, awareness of sturgeon products consumers in terms of their legality.” – Cristina Munteanu, Coordinator of the Save Danube Sturgeons Life Natura Project, WWF-Romania
WWF-CEE is currently involved in two sturgeon conservation projects tackling sturgeon poaching In Romania. The MEASURES project aims to create ecological corridors by identifying key habitats and initiating protection measures along the Danube and its main tributaries. MEASURES has also released over 9000 baby sturgeon into the Danube. Sturgeon are further helped through the SWIPE (Successful Wildlife Crime Prosecution in Europe) project, which aims to discourage and ultimately reduce wildlife crime by improving compliance with EU environmental law and increasing the number of successfully prosecuted offences.
WWF appreciates the increasingly strong commitment made by Romania and Bulgaria in taking crucial steps for the survival of sturgeons in the Green Heart of Europe.
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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, Italy, 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 the 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 per cent.