Big boost for endangered European sturgeons

Posted on 22 May 2019

EU states endorse urgently needed action plan to save critically endangered species
After decades of plummeting numbers due to poaching and habitat loss, Europe’s sturgeons have been given a sign of hope today. The European Commission and experts from EU member states endorsed the implementation of a continent-wide plan to save the species from extinction under the EU Habitats Directive. This will be the first action plan for a fish species implemented under this EU Directive.
The Pan-European Sturgeon Action Plan covers 8 European sturgeon species – 7 of which are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The plan aims to conserve the last surviving sturgeon populations in Europe, restore habitats and reintroduce sturgeon to many rivers. Critically, the plan also outlines actions that countries will take to tackle poaching and the illegal trade in wild sturgeon products – the most immediate threat to the survival of the species.
“This action plan could be the last chance for Europe’s sturgeons. Without urgent action, the continent will lose these iconic fish species within our lifetime – species that have been on Earth for over 200 million years,” said Beate Striebel-Greiter, WWF’s Sturgeon Coordinator.
While sturgeons were widespread in Europe a couple of centuries ago, their current status is dire. Today, natural reproduction occurs in only two European rivers – the Danube, and Rioni in Georgia. Small native populations are found in the Gironde River system in France and the Po in Italy; however, they are probably not reproducing.
The same conservation action plan was adopted last November in Strasbourg by the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats – a legally binding treaty covering most of Europe’s natural heritage.
“The endorsement of the same Action Plan by EU states shows their renewed commitment to saving sturgeon. However, if not followed by swift action, the Action Plan will become just another great conservation strategy gathering dust on shelves around the continent – and sturgeons will become another statistic in the 6th Great Extinction,” added Striebel-Greiter. .
Developed by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society and WWF and in cooperation with many international experts, the plan includes a range of measures to protect the existing populations from illegal fishing or by-catch, as well as identify and protect natural sturgeon habitats and migration corridors. European countries also committed to creating living gene banks and taking steps to reintroduce sturgeons back into the wild.
Indeed, several European countries like France and Germany have already started scientifically substantiated reintroduction programmes. However, it must be noted that because of the migrating nature of sturgeons from rivers into seas, no individual country will be able to save them by themselves.
“Countries in river and sea basins must work together on this, otherwise they will fail. It is a true European challenge to safe sturgeons” continued Beate Striebel-Greiter.
Due to the fact that they live long, mature late, and use many different habitats as they migrate between rivers and seas, sturgeons are ideal umbrella species; a species that indirectly protects the many other species that make up the ecological community of its habitat. Procedures to improve sturgeon habitats and integrity of populations will also benefit other species and communities. As such, they are invaluable as flagship species for free flowing rivers and healthy, well manged marine ecosystems.
The world’s 27 species of sturgeon are considered the most endangered group of species worldwide.
The 8 European native species are Russian Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Adriatic Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Ship Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Stellate Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Atlantic Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Beluga Sturgeon (Critically Endangered), Baltic Sturgeon (Critically Endangered) and Sterlet (Endangered/Vulnerable).
© WWF-Phyllis-Rachler
Russian/Danube sturgeon in the Rhine river
© / Frei / ARCO / WWF