The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has published a survey that it says shows that illegal fishing and trade in wild sturgeon is happening in the lower Danube region on a “rather serious scale.”
Poaching and the illegal trade of meat and caviar are often cited as major threats to many sturgeon populations worldwide, but the conservation group said that its survey, made public on April 12, provides “first-time evidence of the actual scale” of the threats in the lower Danube, specifically in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine.
The WWF said that nearly one-third of the samples of sturgeon products bought through the survey were illegal, while 214 cases of poaching-related incidents were recorded by authorities.
“This is the first assessment of the volume of sturgeon poaching and trade along the lower Danube and Black Sea -- and even if we have to assume that we found just the tip of the iceberg, it shows how serious the impact on the last wild sturgeons still is and how crucial our fight is to save them,” WWF project manager Jutta Jahrl said in a statement.
The methodology of the survey, titled Evidence For Trafficking Of Critically Endangered Sturgeons In The Lower Danube Region, combined official data on poaching activities and the results of a “large-scale” market survey and forensic analysis of meat and caviar samples in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine between October 2016 and July 2020, according to the WWF.
It said a total of 145 samples were collected at different locations from sturgeon populations that share the same migratory routes along the entire trade chain on the Lower Danube and in the northwestern Black Sea region.
Testing points included retailers such as shops, restaurants, local markets, and fishermen, and all samples underwent DNA and isotope analysis that the environmental nongovernmental organization said proved that wild sturgeon products were being sold in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine.
Of the samples tested, 27 (19 percent) proved to be from wild sturgeon -- 25 were meat and two were caviar.
Seventeen samples of caviar (29 percent of all caviar samples) were “sold without compliance” with mandatory regulations of the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In one case, meat sold as farmed was proven to be wild. In several other cases products declared as wild sturgeon proved to be farmed, or to be meat from European catfish or Nile perch, which WWF said indicated “a worrying consumer demand for illegal, wild-caught sturgeon products.”
All fishing and trade of wild Danube sturgeon species was prohibited in Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine during the time period under study, and only the catch of sterlet measuring above 40 centimeters was allowed in Serbia until the end of 2018.
WWF said a total of 214 cases of illegal poaching-related incidents were recorded in the three other countries -- 82 cases in Romania, 82 in Bulgaria, and 50 in Ukraine -- between January 2016 and December 2020.
The WWF cited a number of recommendations to tackle poaching and the illegal trade of sturgeon, including control of CITES caviar labelling requirements, improved interagency cooperation and coordination, increased border controls, use of “state-of-the-art” forensic analysis, and conducting more and recurrent market surveys.
“The survival of these highly threatened wild sturgeon species in Central and Eastern Europe is dependent on continuous and increased efforts to reduce the threat of wild sturgeon trafficking,” it said.