Sturgeons: A fascinating species
The first wild sturgeon I saw was just about two months old and, with a length of 22 centimetres, a rather impressive one for its age. However, the members of its species belong to the largest freshwater fish in the world.
Adult belugas reach lengths of up to 6 meters and weigh up to 1.5 tons. “My” sturgeon had not yet grown to this size, and its large eyes and pointed snout made it look like a youngster.
Some people think sturgeons are ugly. I can’t understand this. They may not be visually appealing but they are unbelievably fascinating. Adult sturgeons usually live in the sea, but they migrate to fresh water and far up the rivers to spawn. The sturgeons in the Danube used to travel from the Black Sea as far up as Vienna and further up to Germany, covering distances of about 2,000 kilometres! But such migrations have been impossible for a long time now. There are too many dams that block the spawning migration routes of the sturgeons. Two major barriers are the dams in the Iron Gate Gorge at the border between Romania and Serbia, which bring the migration of fish to a halt after 860 kilometres.
Another interesting fact is that sturgeons can live to be very old. In this respect sturgeons resemble humans – supposedly they can reach 100 years of age. But then, sturgeons only mature at an age of 10-20 years.
Remnants of a bygone era
Sturgeons have accompanied my professional life as a WWF conservation expert for a long time now. And I have become really fond of these strange animals. Ever since the age of dinosaurs, they have inhabited all kinds of water bodies throughout the world. But now, more than 200 million years later, they are on the verge of extinction. The blame lies with the relatively young species of Homo sapiens.
So, in June 2010 I saw my first wild sturgeons up close. I had the great privilege to be present at the capture of sturgeons hatched in the spring in Romania. Capture? Yes, but solely with the aim of improving the conservation of these animals. After they were measured, weighed and marked, the fish were returned at once to their home in the Danube. The Romanian researchers from the Danube Delta Research Institute in Tulcea handle these valuable fish very gently. They free the juvenile sturgeons carefully from the nets, record the measurements of each, and place individual markers on their dorsal fins.
We need to learn more
The problem is that we know very little of these rare and ancient animals. For instance, it is not yet clear where their spawning sites are situated. This information is vital, because potential sturgeon nurseries will be increasingly under threat – there are plans to build up the Danube in a number of places to aid navigation or to prevent floods, and there is also extensive gravel extraction.
Another serious threat arises from the demand for caviar, the most valuable product coming from sturgeons. The Lower Danube is the only region in Europe where caviar was produced and sold in large quantities in the past. But now the catch of sturgeons has diminished dramatically. To improve the situation, Romania took a sensational step in 2006 and banned sturgeon fishing for the following 10 years. However, sturgeons are still captured in Bulgaria and Ukraine, as well as in Romania – albeit illegally. I was in Sfantu Gheorghe with a WWF filming team to interview some fishermen. The idyllic Romanian fishing port is in the middle of the Danube Delta, where the Danube enters the Black Sea, a well known area among nature lovers. At first, my colleague Cristian from the Romanian WWF office had to do some persuading in the local pub, but then the fishermen invited us home, treated us to some sardines and catfish liver and chatted in a surprisingly unguarded manner of how they caught sturgeons in spite of the ban. They pointed out that caviar brings them enough money to fund the university education of their children or to build a new roof.
We have proposed a project to the EU to develop the cooperation with fishermen and to win them over for the conservation of sturgeons. Only with the support of all stakeholders – fishermen, researchers, institutions and conservationists will the sturgeons not only have a long past but also a future.
This text was published in Panda Magazine issued by WWF Austria.