Posted on 12 April 2021
With all but one of Europe’s remaining sturgeon species facing extinction, a new report details the scale of the poaching and illegal trade in wild sturgeon caviar and meat in the lower Danube and Black Sea, which threatens the survival of these iconic fish.
Published today, WWF’s new market survey found that one third of the sturgeon meat and caviar products in four key sturgeon countries – Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine – were sold illegally. Specifically, 19 per cent of all samples came from wild sturgeon, which cannot currently be legally caught or traded anywhere in the region, while another 12 per cent did not comply with international trade regulations.
“Sturgeon are already the most endangered group of species on Earth and this alarming report details one of the gravest threats to their survival: the ongoing poaching of sturgeon in the lower Danube and Black Sea regions to meet demand for illegal wild caviar and meat,” said Beate Striebel, WWF Lead, Global Sturgeon initiative. “This report proves that wildlife crime is not just about tiger bones, elephant tusks and rhino horns, but also about wild sturgeon products – and it is happening right now, right here in Europe. We all need to work together to halt it.”
Samples of sturgeon caviar and meat were collected in the Lower Danube and in the north-western Black Sea region – two of the last places in Europe that still harbour naturally replenishing sturgeon populations. The samples were taken from across the entire trade chain, including restaurants, bars, shops, supermarkets, local markets, aquaculture facilities, fishermen and online offers. All samples underwent both DNA and isotope testing.
“Very few market surveys on the sturgeon trade exist, and this is the only one so far that combines two state-of-the-art forensic methods, which is crucial to detect illegal trade,” said Arne Ludwig, IZW genetics expert, Co-Chair IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group and co-author of the report.
The study also incorporates official data on poaching and illegal fishing activities. Overall, 214 cases of poaching-related incidents were recorded from 2016-2020 in Romania (82 cases), Bulgaria (82 cases) and Ukraine (50 cases) – countries where all fishing for, and trade in, wild Danube sturgeon species are prohibited.
These incidents included seizures of sturgeon in boats or fishing nets, seizures of illegal sturgeon fishing gear, transportation of poached sturgeon, and sale of caviar or meat of poached sturgeon. In Bulgaria alone, 594 illegal hook lines were detected, adding up to more than 23.5 km. Just last month there were several new reported poaching cases in Ukraine and Romania.
“We have to assume that these results are just the tip of the trafficking iceberg, underlining how much demand there still is for illegal wild sturgeon products and how serious this threat is to the future of Europe’s last wild breeding populations of sturgeon,” said Jutta Jahrl, WWF Project Manager. “Tackling the illegal trade in sturgeon crime is a key pillar of WWF’s ambitious global Sturgeon Initiative and with this new data, we are shining a spotlight on this critical issue.“
Along with its key statistical findings, the report also recommends a series of actions to enhance efforts to halt poaching and illegal sturgeon trafficking across the region. The recommendations included enhanced controls of domestic trade; improved inter-agency cooperation and coordination; increased border controls; and the use of more state-of-the-art forensic analysis and market surveys. In countries where CITES caviar labelling is not yet implemented for domestic markets, the introduction of such a provision is urgently needed.