Giants of the Danube get more protection



Posted on 02 May 2011  | 
Danube sturgeons, the ancient migratory fish that are today teetering on the brink of extinction due to overfishing because of their valuable caviar, have new hope for survival with the imposition of a fishing ban in Bulgaria. Bulgarian authorities have announced a one-year ban, joining the efforts of neighbouring Romania, which is in the middle of a ten-year ban.

“This is the first time Bulgaria has banned sturgeon catching in the Danube”, said Ivaylo Simeonov, Head of Unit Management and Monitoring of Fisheries at Bulgaria’s National Agency of Fisheries and Aquaculture. “We did have a ban on sturgeon catching in 2008, but only in the Black Sea”.

“WWF welcomes this admirable development. This is a great step for Danube sturgeons”, said Jutta Jahrl, Sturgeon expert at WWF. “What this means is that Bulgaria is really giving the sturgeons a break, joining Romania in this very important measure. The Romanian moratorium came into force in April 2006, but considering that the Danube serves as a national border between Bulgaria and Romania, a one-sided ban cannot have any impact if fishermen on the other side are still catching the fish”.

Most sturgeons are anadromous - the adults live in estuaries and coastal waters but swim upstream to spawn. The Black Sea is one of the most important sturgeon fisheries in the world, second only to the Caspian Sea. The Danube, as one of the major feeder rivers and estuaries of the Black Sea, is crucial for sturgeons.

The one-year ban on the part of Bulgaria is a prelude to a five-year ban which is planned to start in 2012.

“At the Fisheries Agency we have already prepared the terms of the five-year ban”, Ivaylo Simeonov said. “Under the terms of the proposed ban, various activities in support of sturgeon populations will be carried out, for example restocking of fish populations and monitoring of the status of sturgeons”.

An information campaign among fishing communities and better enforcement of the ban are also in the pipeline for 2012.

The caviar connection

Until the 19th century, giant Beluga sturgeons migrated from the Black Sea up the Danube as far as Germany and were important mainstays for many fishing communities. Originating 200 million years ago, sturgeons have outlasted the dinosaurs, but today most species are critically endangered according to the IUCN red list.

Dams such as the Iron Gates between Serbia and Romania that have cut off the migration routes of sturgeons, the consequent loss of spawning habitats and especially overexploitation of the fish, driven by caviar consumption, are the main human activities that threaten and impact sturgeon populations.

“Overfishing - principally for caviar - is the biggest cause for concern, but habitat alteration, including hydropower, and pollution are contributing causes”, said Colman O'Criodain, Wildlife Trade Officer at WWF.

Trade in sturgeon caviar is an extremely profitable business. Caviar is one of the most expensive wildlife products, fetching retail prices of EUR 6,000 and up per kilogram. Among the sturgeon species native to the Danube basin is the Beluga sturgeon famous for its expensive caviar.

Until 2007 quotas for caviar export existed and were distributed among Lower Danube countries. But in 2007 it was realized that population numbers had dropped drastically and Lower Danube countries could not fulfill even half of their respective quotas. This led to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banning caviar export from natural fish populations - as opposed to farmed fish - from all Lower Danube countries.

Unfortunately the ban has led to cases of illegal trade and although actual amounts of illegal trade are unknown, they are estimated to be significant. Between 2000 and 2005, authorities seized over 12 tonnes of illegal caviar in the EU.

Officially, most of the caviar from Lower Danube countries in circulation today is from aquaculture stock.

“In an effort to stop illegal trade, CITES parties agreed on a comprehensive chain-of-custody labeling, which aims to track caviar from its origin to the end consumer”, said Colman O'Criodain.

According to international regulations, all caviar containers must bear a label that contains a specific set of information. Any caviar on sale without this label is illegal.

“Although international regulations are good, there are still loopholes. Caviar for personal use is excepted from any requirements. Furthermore, there is no general rule for the printing of labels, no general design (apart from the code) or any obligatory safety feature. In a few countries lables are printed by the state but usually the companies print them themselves, so it's easy to forge them”, Jutta Jahrl said.

“On top of this, consumer awareness in Western Europe seems to be rather low. Even legal traders of caviar do not know much about labelling requirements. It is crucial that traders and consumers are more aware of the issue and do not buy caviar without labels. This would be a strong force against illegal trade”.

“The EU, which is a major producer and consumer market, can solve this by amending the legislation to close all the loopholes”, Jutta Jahrl said.

Until the 19th century, giant Beluga sturgeons migrated from the Black Sea up the Danube as far as Germany and were important mainstays for many fishing communities.
Until the 19th century, giant Beluga sturgeons migrated from the Black Sea up the Danube as far as Germany and were important mainstays for many fishing communities.
© naturepl.com / Frei / ARCO / WWF Enlarge
The Danube, as one of the major feeder rivers and estuaries of the Black Sea, is crucial for sturgeons.
The Danube, as one of the major feeder rivers and estuaries of the Black Sea, is crucial for sturgeons.
© WWF DCPO Enlarge
"This is a great step for Danube sturgeons. What it means is that Bulgaria is really giving the sturgeons a break", says Jutta Jahrl, Sturgeon expert at WWF.
© WWF Enlarge

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