WWF and Bulgarian Fishermen Working Together to Save the Sturgeons

This is a short story about a day of celebrations, about the sturgeons – endangered species of the Danube river – and how an experienced local fisherman sees his future.

Celebrating Saint Nicolas day on December 6 has a long tradition in Bulgaria. Many stories have been told about St. Nicolas and his power for calming winds and storms and walking over the sea to rescue ships in danger. It is a day when myth and reality merge together. Early in the morning fishermen will sail out, hoping for a good catch of fresh fish. The tradition has been for so long out there that we have stopped asking and thinking about the future of the fish and the fishermen.

Sturgeons, the flagship fish of the Danube river, nowadays are in great danger. In general, sturgeons are the most endangered fish worldwide, with few natural habitats left for them to call home. In the EU, the last region still holding viable, naturally-reproducing sturgeon populations is in the Lower Danube and the North-Western of the Black Sea.

The project “Life for Danube Sturgeon” aims to save the Danube’s treasure: sturgeons. WWF  Bulgaria conservation experts hold regular meetings with local fishermen to inform them on the threats that sturgeon species face, the negative impact of overfishing, the legal requirements and the positive long-term effect of protecting the few viable sturgeon populations left in the Danube-Black sea basin. As part of the project, experts and local people work together to find and develop alternative livelihoods for the fishing communities.

We asked Emil Milev, chairman of the fishing association “Black Sea Sunrise” to formulate the future for the fishermen and fishing in Bulgaria. “We have to practice responsible fishing and to be a good role-model for others”, says Emil Milev. He has been an active fisherman for more than 20 years and has seen many good and bad days at sea. Emil Milev hopes to pass on his profession to his children and they to follow and pass it on to next generations. The experienced fisherman voices his worries about: water pollution, extinction or significant decline of fish species; the need for better regulations in the industry and stronger enforcement of existing laws. He and his colleagues believe their future starts today: the fishermen filmed themselves releasing sturgeons’ by-catch, back into the water, and shared the video on the social media. They want to lead by example.

Danube’s treasure: sturgeons.

Five of the six sturgeon species native to the Danube basin used to live in the Black Sea and enter the Danube for spawning. In the past, Russian Sturgeon, Stellate Sturgeon, European Sturgeon (very rare and now extinct in the Danube), Ship Sturgeon and Beluga Sturgeon regularly migrated upstream, some as far as Vienna and beyond. However, this migration has been interrupted by the Iron Gates dams shared by Serbia and Romania. Today, the migration of these species can be observed only in the Lower Danube. The Sterlet, on the other hand, is a pure freshwater species and largely sedentary, undertaking only short spawning migrations. The Ship Sturgeon seems to have survived only in its freshwater form, if at all, in the Danube.

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Emil Milev with his children (C) Personal Archive