Virtual field trip displays sturgeon protection in the Lower Danube region

WWF planned to organise a field trip to share the experience gathered throughout the “Life for Danube Sturgeons” project, however, just as with everything else in 2020, the plan was disrupted by the global pandemic. Utilising the available technology, the project team managed to organise a virtual tour on 25th November, to reach out to experts, who could potentially replicate the project activities in other sturgeon range states. Forty-four participants from 16 countries and various institutions and organizations such as European Commission, EU Strategy for the Danube Region, research institutes and NGOs, joined for a rapid (2.5 hours) “field trip” of the project region. Our virtual guide and facilitator was Beate Striebel, WWF Sturgeon Initiative Leader.

After an overview of the project and its activities, presented by the project coordinator Jutta Jahrl, the participants met George Caracas from Romania who explained the work with fishermen as “Sturgeon Advocate”. This initiative has proven an effective way to build trustful relationships with fishermen through a direct contact person. Cristina Munteanu demonstrated the development of alternative businesses for fishing communities, with business plans related to tourism and local gastronomic points in Borcea and Fetești.

In place of a joint lunch, the team shared the preliminary results of the market survey, which will be published in early 2021 and included many samples of wild sturgeons, as well as catfish, which was sold as sturgeon meat.

The next stop of the study visit was Serbia, where a successful nation-wide campaign of WWF together with fishermen and anglers was presented by Ivana Grubisic. As a result, a moratorium for fishing and trade of Sterlet was imposed. With that ban, all sturgeon species in the whole Lower Danube region finally received the much-needed protection.

In Bulgaria, participants learned from Borislava Margaritova how fishermen can be involved in sturgeon monitoring. In this pilot activity, fishermen from the Danube and the Black sea were trained in sturgeon monitoring methods, necessary for ichthyological research and several of them received telephones with which they can send pictures of sturgeon bycatch. The project team received over 250 photographs of sturgeon bycatch, and how they released the fish. This information is very valuable for the sturgeon experts and it also allows the fishermen to take ownership of sturgeon conservation efforts. The only current data on sturgeon in Bulgaria is the data obtained from the annual surveys of WWF Bulgaria, where fishermen were involved, as well as the data obtained from the smartphones distributed to fishermen.

The last station of the trip was the Ukrainian Danube delta with Inna Hoch, where operations with volunteers – the so-called “Sturgeon Watchers” – have been organised to protect sturgeons on their downstream migration, through joint patrols with law enforcement officials, in early summer for four consecutive years. This very useful activity will be continued by the Ukrainian Danube Biosphere Reserve.

Finally, the participants were asked to consider which of the presented activities they would take up in future projects in their countries and the most preferred options were the pilot activities like the “Sturgeon Watchers”, the monitoring of sturgeons by fishermen, and advocating and communicating about sturgeon protection with the local communities. More information about these and other project activities can be found on this website or by contacting anyone from the project team.