Poaching and illegal trade in sturgeon pose major threat to critically endangered species in Europe, warns new report


  • Almost 1/3 of sturgeon caviar and meat products in four key countries were sold illegally.
  • 214 cases of poaching related incidents were recorded by authorities.
  • 7 out of 8 sturgeon species in Europe are threatened with extinction.


Vienna, 12 April – With all but one of Europe’s remaining sturgeon species facing extinction, a new report details the scale of the poaching and illegal trade in wild sturgeon caviar and meat in the lower Danube and Black Sea, which threatens the survival of these iconic fish.

Published today, WWF’s new market survey found that one third of the sturgeon meat and caviar products in four key sturgeon countries – Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine – were sold illegally. Specifically, 19 per cent of all samples came from wild sturgeon, which cannot currently be legally caught or traded anywhere in the region, while another 12 per cent did not comply with international trade regulations.

“Sturgeon are already the most endangered group of species on Earth and this alarming report details one of the gravest threats to their survival: the ongoing poaching of sturgeon in the lower Danube and Black Sea regions to meet demand for illegal wild caviar and meat,” said Beate Striebel, WWF Lead, Global Sturgeon initiative. “This report proves that wildlife crime is not just about tiger bones, elephant tusks and rhino horns, but also about wild sturgeon products – and it is happening right now, right here in Europe. We all need to work together to halt it.”

Beluga caviar©Hannes Greber WWF Austria 300x169 - Poaching and illegal trade in sturgeon pose major threat to critically endangered species in Europe, warns new report
Beluga Caviar © Hannes Greber, WWF Austria

Samples of sturgeon caviar and meat were collected in the Lower Danube and in the north-western Black Sea region – two of the last places in Europe that still harbour naturally replenishing sturgeon populations. The samples were taken from across the entire trade chain, including restaurants, bars, shops, supermarkets, local markets, aquaculture facilities, fishermen and online offers. All samples underwent both DNA and isotope testing.

“Very few market surveys on the sturgeon trade exist, and this is the only one so far that combines two state-of-the-art forensic methods, which is crucial to detect illegal trade,” said Arne Ludwig, IZW genetics expert, Co-Chair IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group and co-author of the report.

The study also incorporates official data on poaching and illegal fishing activities. Overall, 214 cases of poaching-related incidents were recorded from 2016-2020 in Romania (82 cases), Bulgaria (82 cases) and Ukraine (50 cases) – countries where all fishing for, and trade in, wild Danube sturgeon species are prohibited.

These incidents included seizures of sturgeon in boats or fishing nets, seizures of illegal sturgeon fishing gear, transportation of poached sturgeon, and sale of caviar or meat of poached sturgeon. In Bulgaria alone, 594 illegal hook lines were detected, adding up to more than 23.5 km. Just last month there were several new reported poaching cases in Ukraine and Romania.

“We have to assume that these results are just the tip of the trafficking iceberg, underlining how much demand there still is for illegal wild sturgeon products and how serious this threat is to the future of Europe’s last wild breeding populations of sturgeon,” said Jutta Jahrl, WWF Project Manager. “Tackling the illegal trade in sturgeon crime is a key pillar of WWF’s ambitious global Sturgeon Initiative and with this new data, we are shining a spotlight on this critical issue.“

Along with its key statistical findings, the report also recommends a series of actions to enhance efforts to halt poaching and illegal sturgeon trafficking across the region. The recommendations included enhanced controls of domestic trade; improved inter-agency cooperation and coordination; increased border controls; and the use of more state-of-the-art forensic analysis and market surveys. In countries where CITES caviar labelling is not yet implemented for domestic markets, the introduction of such a provision is urgently needed.



Beluga Sturgeon Huso huso©Lubomir Hlasek 300x180 - Poaching and illegal trade in sturgeon pose major threat to critically endangered species in Europe, warns new report
Beluga Sturgeon (Huso huso) © Lubomir Hlasek
For more information:

Jutta Jahrl, Project Manager, WWF-Austria: +43 1 48817 264, jutta.jahrl@wwf.at

Richard Lee, WWF Global Freshwater Communications Manager, +31654287956, rlee@wwfint.org 

Test results
  • Isotope analysis proved that wild sturgeon products were being sold in all four countries. Of the 145 samples tested, 19% (27 out of all 145) proved to be from wild sturgeon – 25 were meat and 2 were caviar
  • 17 samples of caviar (12% of all samples and 29% of all caviar samples) were sold without compliance with mandatory CITES regulations. For international trade it is illegal to trade caviar without mandatory CITES labelling, or without correct codes for species or country of origin. For EU Member states this applies also on the domestic market.

DNA Testing: Three lines of DNA evidence were combined to determine the species or hybrid of origin, allowing a high degree of certainty of the results: (1) Mitochondrial DNA sequence polymorphism for species identification (2) microsatellites for ploidy and (3) Single Nucleotide Polymorphism genotyping for hybrid determination.

Isotope analysis: Stable isotope analysis was applied to deliver information on the “production method” (wild versus farmed) of samples, using the proxy of the isotope composition of sturgeon feed, and in parts on the geographical origin.



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, France, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands. 

This activity was part of the EU-funded LIFE project “Sustainable Protection of Lower Danube Sturgeons by Preventing and Counteracting Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade” (LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS, LIFE 15 GIE/AT/001004), focused on Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. 

About WWF

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