Can scientists, activists, fishermen and consumers find a way to save the ancient Danube sturgeon? Killing the appetite for wild caviar would help, say conservationists.
Once upon a time, giant bony fish patrolled the Danube, migrating from the Black Sea to Vienna and beyond. Big as boats when they breached the surface, they likely inspired the river monsters described in some fairy tales about Europe’s second-longest river.
Sturgeons have been around in something like their present form for at least 200 million years, persisting through immense geological upheavals and extreme changes in climate. These fish are survivors. But in the last 100 years, humans have pushed them to the brink of extinction.
They’re more critically endangered than any other group of species. Europe and Asia’s 18 species are under pressure. In the Danube, one species is already extinct, and four others are critically endangered.
Dams have cut off their migration routes, and 80 percent of their spawning and feeding grounds have been diked and drained. Poachers, seeking wild caviar, are killing the remaining few.
It’s long past the time to bring them back, says Thomas Friedrich, the manager of the Vienna-based “Life Sterlet” recovery project.
“The love affair with this fish started as a teenager when I was a fisherman“, says Friedrich. “I saw the first one in a pet store. Then I started keeping them in fish tanks and wanted to reproduce them myself.”
His fascination with sturgeon is evident as he reaches into a tank to hold one of the adults and comments on how different they are from other fish. “They’re relics of another age and symbols of the connection between rivers and the ocean“, he adds.
With their long snout and ridged dorsal fin, Sterlets definitely have a prehistoric aura.
The caviar trade
Jutta Jahrl is similarly passionate about saving the sturgeon. She heads the “LIFE for Danube Sturgeons” project aimed at addressing illegal poaching and curbing demand for wild caviar that threatens the sturgeons’ survival in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
The roe delicacy can command €10,000 ($11,985) per kilo largely thanks to demand among a small group of ultra-rich people in places like Moscow and New York.
“It’s still shocking to me that you can find unlabeled caviar in old traditional shops“, Jahrl tells DW, as she strolls around Vienna’s famed Naschmarkt, an open-air market featuring endless gourmet goodies.
That’s despite efforts to enforce a strict labeling system meant to let consumers know their deluxe holiday treat comes from a sustainable source, and not from a poached wild sturgeon.
Jahrl holds a tin of caviar at a fish stand. Even though the tin is clearly marked with a slim band showing the fish eggs come from a farm in Germany, the vendor insists it’s wild Russian caviar. That’s what his customers want to hear. They’ll pay more if they believe it.
Jutta Jahrl says commercial caviar producers are well aware of labeling regulations, but retailers, who are dishonest about their products’ origin, hinder efforts to make the industry transparent and accountable. Educating consumers is critical here because if there were no demand for illegal caviar, there would be no poaching, says Jahrl.
But saving sturgeon also means working with communities along the Lower Danube region and downstream to the Black Sea, where people have been fishing and eating the species for generations.
Eleventh century annals already document sturgeon as important food for crusaders along the upper Danube in Austria, and the fish remained an important subsistence and commercial species for centuries.
“If we don’t get acceptance and support there, we won’t be able to save them,” says Jahrl. “We don’t want to stop sturgeon fishing forever. We are working with fishermen to make sturgeon sustainable.”
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