Illegal caviar trade poses major threat to Danube sturgeons
The two countries hold the only viable populations of wild sturgeons in the European Union (EU), but five of the six native sturgeon species in the Danube are critically endangered and sturgeon fishing there has been banned.
According to the new report, a total of 14 seizures of illegal caviar originating from Bulgaria (27.5 kg in five seizures) and Romania (25 kg in nine seizures) were reported by EU Member States between 2000 and 2009. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania reported illegal caviar seizures themselves.
“It is of concern that Bulgaria and Romania reported no seizures of caviar, while other EU Member States registered several seizures where those two countries were implicated,” said TRAFFIC’s Katalin Kecse-Nagy, author of the report.
“The detected quantities are not very high, but we must bear in mind that the real volume of illegal trade is likely to be considerably higher and any illegal trade poses an unacceptable risk to these highly threatened species,” said Kecse-Nagy.
Kecse-Nagy also points out that in 2007, both Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, meaning any illegal trade was within the Union, and therefore harder to detect and prevent.
In addition, due to their geographical position, the two countries are potential gateways for illicit caviar trade from the Caspian Sea, the most important sturgeon fishery in the world.
In 2009 German authorities seized caviar smuggled into the EU and labeled as Bulgarian farmed caviar. Bulgaria and Romania are only permitted to trade in farmed-caviar, but isotope analysis demonstrated the caviar had originated from the Caspian Sea.
“This case demonstrates how permitted caviar farming was exploited to launder illegally sourced caviar into legal trade,” said Kecse-Nagy.
Analysis of legal trade data indicates a large increase in aquaculture production in Bulgaria for export, including within the EU.
“This means it is more vital than ever to regulate closely the caviar trade within the region to ensure illicit trade is not posing a threat to wild sturgeons.”
The TRAFFIC report recommends both Romania and Bulgaria raise awareness among enforcement agencies of the illegal caviar trade and strengthen their capacity to control and monitor the trade.
“The EU has a major responsibility to regulate the caviar trade because EU member states are the largest consumer of caviar from Romania and the second largest consumer of caviar from Bulgaria,” said Jutta Jahrl, Sturgeon expert at WWF.
“The EU must close every loophole in order to save sturgeons from extinction.”
However, according to Jahrl, consumer awareness in Europe about the threat posed by illegal caviar trade is low, while even genuine traders know little about the requirements for labelling legal caviar.
“It is crucial that traders and consumers do not buy unlabelled caviar - this simple act would strike a major blow against the illegal trade.”
The report, Trade in Sturgeon Caviar in Bulgaria and Romania, was funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, DBU (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) and WWF.
More on caviar trade and sturgeons
- Originating 200 million years ago, sturgeons have outlasted the dinosaurs, but today are the most threatened animals on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Overfishing - principally for caviar - is the biggest cause for concern, but cutting off sturgeon migration routes, habitat alteration, including hydropower, and pollution are further contributing causes. According to the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, the Danube is the only large river system in Europe where protection of existing but dwindling sturgeon stocks is still possible.
- Due to its high price and rarity, caviar - one of the most expensive wildlife products - is often traded illegally. Among the sturgeon species native to the Danube is the Beluga Sturgeon, famous for its expensive caviar. Trade in sturgeon caviar is an extremely profitable business. Retail prices for caviar can reach EUR 6,000 and up per kilogram.
- 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. Fishing and export of sturgeon and sturgeon products of wild origin was banned in Romania in 2006 for 10 years, while Bulgaria is currently under a one year ban.
- The TRAFFIC report also provides an analysis of legal caviar trade which is economically important for the whole region. It shows that direct exports of caviar peaked in 2000 in Romania and in 2006 in Bulgaria. In Romania the reported amounts of caviar went down to zero in 2006, the start of a 10 year sturgeon fishing and export ban in the country.
For additional information or to request an expert interview, please contact:
TRAFFIC: Richard Thomas, richard.thomas[at]traffic[dot]org, direct +44 1223 279 068
WWF: Olga Apostolova, oapostolova[at]wwfdcp[dot]bg, direct +359 2 950 50 41