The Project

LIFE for Danube Sturgeons

Sturgeons are the most endangered fish worldwide, with few natural habitats left for them to call home. In the EU one of the very few regions still holding viable, naturally-reproducing sturgeon populations is in the Lower Danube and North-Western Black Sea.

The project “LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS” focuses on saving the flagship fish of the Danube – sturgeons. The reasons for the decline are complex, but lack of awareness and information is a root cause of the most important one, overexploitation. Despite strict legal protection, illegal fishing and trade in meat and caviar from wild sturgeons still endanger the last survivors of these ancient and iconic fish species.

Seven organisations from six countries team up to take care of a better protection of sturgeons. Together with fishing communities, alternative income sources will be researched and developed to reduce the dependency on formerly prestigious but now illegal activities. Law enforcement agencies will be supported in building capacity and enhancing their fight against poaching, smuggling and illegal trade. In addition, the markets for caviar and sturgeon meat will be closely monitored and informed about legal requirements.

Project title: Sustainable protection of lower Danube sturgeons by preventing and counteracting poaching and illegal wildlife trade

Project acronym: LIFE for Danube Sturgeons

Project countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine

Project duration: October 2016 – December 2020

Project Management and co-ordination: WWF Austria

This is a project under the European Commission’s LIFE programme for the environment and climate action.

Goals & Main Objectives

The project aims to contribute to halting and reversing losses in the EU and worldwide, specifically adding to the EU Strategy for the Danube Region as well as to the program for the protection of Danube sturgeons “Sturgeon 2020” in the following sections:

  • Capacity building and law enforcement;
  • Socio-economic measures in support of sturgeon conservation;
  • Raising public awareness.

“LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS” aims to stop the threat to highly endangered sturgeons in the Lower Danube and northwestern Black Sea region caused by illegal fishing and trade. The project’s planned activities intend to achieve significant improvement in sturgeon species status.

This is pursued by improving enforcement of laws and regulations through the following activities:

  • National workshops to facilitate networking and exchange of experiences of all national agencies responsible for implementing regulations concerning sturgeon fishing, aquaculture and trade;
  • Discussions of problems and best practice approaches to enhance law enforcement and investigation processes;
  • Invitation for participation of prosecution and judicial authorities to strengthen the essential cooperation of the entire enforcement chain;
  • A regional workshop with agencies from neighbouring countries to foster the crucial cross-border coordination and collaboration;
  • Specific training courses, study visits, targeted information packages and newsletters to respond to the needs of individual authorities and enhance expertise and practical skills of officials.

Furthermore, fishing communities are actively supported as they depend in various degrees on the natural resource that has to be protected. Project activities explicitly aim at tackling the problem – the poaching of sturgeons despite catch bans. That is done in the following ways:

  • Sturgeon Advocates act as mediators, raising awareness of fishermen for the need for sturgeon protection and for observance of legislative measures;
  • Business plans and concrete business cases are developed to offer alternative income sources in major fishing communities.
  • Involving fishermen and other affected stakeholders in the revision process of law enforcement procedures to increase acceptance of control measures and compliance with legal provisions.

Another key objective within the project is to research the market in order to understand better trends and customer behaviour. Ultimately, the respective retailers will be made aware of legislation that will prevent illegal products from reaching the market.

Location & Target Groups

The importance to conserve and protect the existing sturgeon stocks is more outstanding than ever. However, the high global responsibility to do that stays with Romania and Bulgaria, two of the lowest-income EU Member States, as well as Serbia and Ukraine, one being a candidate country and the other one – a potential candidate for accession to the EU.

The project focuses on the 3 key target groups in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine:

  • Fishermen and fishing communities, including young people;
  • Law enforcement authorities;
  • Shops, restaurants, markets, catering companies offering sturgeon meat or caviar.

While main activities are organised around the needs of those three main groups, interaction with other stakeholders is also continuous throughout the entire project to include scientists, protected area administration, NGOs, decision makers on national, local and EU level, EU and international bodies, companies breeding sturgeons or dealing with caviar, interested general public, including potential caviar consumers and residents of the Lower Danube and Black Sea regions who are not directly involved in fishing but are still somehow engaged with the activity as such.


Funding & Partners

The project is coordinated by WWF in Austria with participation of the following beneficiaries:

LIFE for Danube Sturgeons is financed by the European Union and all partners. The EU’s financing is coming from its financial instrument – LIFE Programme, that supports environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout the EU.

 Do you want to know more?

LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout the EU. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 4306 projects. For the 2014-2020 funding period, LIFE will contribute approximately €3.4 billion to the protection of the environment and climate. For more information, please go to Environment LIFE.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) works to ensure the sustainable and equitable use of waters and freshwater resources in the Danube River Basin. The work of the ICPDR is based on the Danube River Protection Convention, the major legal instrument for cooperation and trans-boundary water management in the Danube River Basin. For more general information, please go to the ICPDR’s website or if you’d like to find out how exactly ICPDR helps to save sturgeons in the Danube basin, click here: Sturgeons in the Danube Basin.

The majority of sturgeon species at risk of extinction occur in Eurasia, whilst several species in the USA have made improvements over the last decades. – – – Lamers, K. Freshwater Programme World Wildlife Fund Netherlands, Writing assignment for the Master Environmental Biology. The Caveat in Caviar: Lessons from sturgeon management in the USA.

85% of sturgeon species are considered to be endangered and 63% are listed in IUCN’s Red List as ”Critically Endangered”; 4 species are believed to be ”Possibly Extinct”. – – – Chadwick, N., Drzewinski, P., Hurt, L.A. 2010. Sturgeon More Critically Endangered Than Any Other Group of Species. International News Release IUCN.

In the recent years, nine biogeographic regions of sturgeon habitats were identified:

Eurasia: (1) the Northeastern Atlantic, (2) the Ponto-Caspian, (3) Siberia & the Arctic Ocean, (4) Amur river & the Sea of Japan, (5) China,

America: (6) the Northeastern Pacific, (7) the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay & the St. Lawrance river, (8) the Mississippi river & the Gulf of Mexico, (9) the Northwestern Atlantic.

Among all these, the region hosting the highest biodiversity of sturgeons is the Ponto-Caspian where 11 different sturgeon species live. For comparison, the rest of the regions normally harbour between 1 to 5 species. – – –  Bemis, W.E., Kynard, B. 1997. Sturgeon rivers: an introduction to acipenseriform biogeography and life history. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 48, pp. 167–183. // Billard, R., Lecointre, G. 2001. Biology and conservation of sturgeon and paddlefish. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 10, pp. 355–392.

A rich library of articles and research papers on sturgeons, including the overview of reported trade in caviar in Bulgaria and Romania for the period from 1998 to 2008.

To discover more, visit the website of TRAFFIC.