Two-thirds of sturgeon species now Critically Endangered with one confirmed Extinct
Posted on 21 July 2022
GLAND, Switzerland (21 July 2022) – International conservation organisations are calling on governments to “stop turning a blind eye” to the extinction of sturgeon and paddlefish as the world’s first comprehensive assessment of the species in over 13 years, released today by the IUCN, confirms all 26 remaining species are now threatened with extinction.
Carried out by members of the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group (SSG), the new assessment highlights that almost two-thirds of sturgeon and paddlefish species are now critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – making them the world’s most threatened group of species. The assessment also officially declares the extinction of the Chinese paddlefish, the extinction in the wild of the Yangtze sturgeon, and the regional extinction of ship sturgeon in the Danube.
“There’s something to be said about humanity, when a species that’s outlived the dinosaurs is pushed to the brink of extinction by humans who have, in comparison, existed for a mere blip in time,” said Beate Striebel-Greiter, WWF Lead, Global Sturgeon Initiative.
“We call on countries to stop turning a blind eye to the extinction of sturgeon and implement the solutions they know can help save these iconic species,” added Strieble-Greiter. “We have a choice: thriving healthy rivers that nourish and sustain communities around the world or stick with today's failed policies – leaving us with empty rivers that benefit neither people or nature.”
The assessment highlights once again, the urgent need for an ambitious global framework for nature to be agreed upon by governments at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal later this year. In particular, the new deal must prioritise freshwater species and ecosystems, which have invariably been overlooked despite being among the most at risk.
“The world’s failure to safeguard sturgeon species is an indictment of governments across the globe, who are failing to sustainably manage their rivers and live up to their commitments to conserve these iconic fish and halt the global loss of nature,” said Arne Ludwig, Chair of the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group. “These shocking – but sadly not surprising – assessments mean that sturgeon retain their unwanted title as the world’s most threatened group of species.”
Poaching sturgeon for the illegal trade in wild caught caviar and meat is one of the leading causes of their demise. Last year, WWF revealed that one-third of caviar and meat products sold in the lower Danube region were sold illegally. Hydropower dams blocking their migration routes, unsustainable mining destroying their spawning grounds and habitat loss are other major threats to the species.
Governments in Europe have agreed ambitious policies to protect sturgeon species under the Pan-European Action Plan for sturgeons. Yet, the status of sturgeons continues to worsen across the continent. Seven of the eight European species were already listed as critically endangered, and now the sterlet, the smallest, purely freshwater species, has been reclassified from vulnerable to endangered.
The ship sturgeon has also now been declared extinct in the Danube, marking the rare disappearance of a species from EU territory that was protected under the EU Habitats Directive. In fact, only one species and one sub-species had gone extinct in the EU, under the Directive, since it was implemented in 1979 – until now.
“The loss of the ship sturgeon from the Danube demonstrates the urgency to implement the Pan-European Action Plan for sturgeon, including measures to ensure upstream and downstream migration,” said Striebel-Greiter. “There are no excuses for the current lack of action and no one else to blame: if governments across Europe and EU institutions do not act now to restore river connectivity and protect and restore sturgeon habitats in key rivers, the extinction of more sturgeon species will be on their hands.”
Despite the concerning update, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Following 30 years of restocking, young Adriatic sturgeon – a species that was previously thought to be extinct in the wild – has been documented in Italy. And the incredibly rare Amu Darya shovelnose sturgeon has been found in Uzbekistan – suggesting that these populations are still breeding and could potentially be revived. Meanwhile, long-term conservation efforts in North America have helped to stabilise and increase some sturgeon populations, including the white sturgeon in the Fraser River in the US.
“These successes show that we can reverse the declines in sturgeon species as long as institutions and governments prioritise their conservation and join forces with communities and conservationists to tackle the threats to them and their rivers,” said World Sturgeon Conservation Society (WSCS) president Paolo Bronzi. “By saving sturgeon, we will save so much more – because enhancing the health of sturgeon rivers benefits all the people and nature that rely on them.”
IUCN, WSCS and WWF are working with partners to safeguard these species through scientific research, awareness raising and directly engaging in conservation projects to bridge the gap between science and management.
Notes for Editor
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Interesting facts about sturgeon
- Sturgeon are among the largest freshwater fish on Earth: with the largest in the past reaching up to 7 metres in length and weighing up to 1.5 tonnes
- Sturgeon can live over 100 years and take up to 15 years to mature
- Sturgeon have been around since the age of the dinosaurs and have remained almost unchanged since
- Sturgeon can migrate up to 3,000 kilometres to spawn
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Red List Assessment
The last overall assessment of sturgeon and paddlefish dates back to 2009. Along with the 27 species, this update also separately assessed 2 subspecies and 46 sub-populations – 42 of these for the first time, providing the most detailed global picture of sturgeon so far.
Asia: Along with the loss of the Chinese Paddlefish, another sturgeon species living in the Yangtze river is now classified as “extinct in the wild” – the Yangtze sturgeon. Existing individuals in the river are the result of releases from captive stocks. Wild populations of the Siberian sturgeon, which is widely used in aquaculture, were also moved to the highest threat category – Critically Endangered.
The Amu Darya shovelnose sturgeon is a small, rare sturgeon species known only from the Amu Darya River in Central Asia. It was last caught in 1996 in the middle reaches of the river before scientists rediscovered it in 2020 in Uzbekistan.
Europe: The situation is becoming ever more grave. All 8 species are now either Critically Endangered (7) or Endangered (1). The only improvement concerns the Adriatic sturgeon, which was previously believed to be extinct in the wild. The discovery of juveniles in the Ticino, Livenza and Po rivers, which were not the result of restocking activities, indicate that the species probably started spawning again in the wild.
North America: Concerted conservation efforts are proving effective in parts of North America. While some species (Alabama shovelnose) or sub-populations are still on the brink of extinction, several populations have stabilized or shown slight increases recently.
The Pan-European Action Plan for Sturgeons was adopted by the Standing Committee of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) in November 2018. It was recommended for implementation under the Habitats Directive in May 2019. This multi-species action plan covers eight European sturgeon species, and sets the framework to conserve the last surviving sturgeon populations, protect and restore their habitats and migration routes, urgently end their illegal fishing and by-catch and reintroduce the species to a number of key rivers.