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Europe’s last wild sturgeons threatened by ongoing illegal fishing and caviar trade—WWF and TRAFFIC

Danube River sturgeons are 'doomed' unless sophisticated illegal fishing is stopped finds a new report © Phyllis-Rachler-WWF Bucharest, Romania, 18th June 2013—Ongoing illegal fishing and trade in caviar in Romania and Bulgaria is threatening the survival of sturgeons in the Danube river basin finds a new report by WWF and TRAFFIC.

The report’s findings are based on interviews with caviar retailers and DNA analyses of samples obtained from selected shops, restaurants, markets, street vendors and sturgeon farms in Romania and Bulgaria.

Significant information was also obtained in discussions with fishermen.  In both countries, a current fishing ban is in place until 2015. However, Bulgarian fishermen told researchers they used modern equipment such as sonar and GPS as well as the forbidden traditional hook lines - “carmaci” - to catch wild sturgeons.

“Romania and Bulgaria are home to the only viable wild sturgeon populations left in the European Union, but unless this sophisticated illegal fishing is stopped, these fish are doomed,” said WWF’s Jutta Jahrl, author of the new report.

In total 30 caviar samples were obtained and analysed during the latest study to determine the species of origin (14 in Romania, 14 in Bulgaria and 2 of Bulgarian farmed caviar in Austria).

The one that got away? Fishermen at Giurgeni bridge, Romania, showing that they offer big fish – which often means sturgeons – for sale © WWF Of five samples said by vendors to be from wild-caught sturgeons, four were shown to be from the highly sought-after Beluga Sturgeon Huso huso. Five of the six sturgeon species native to the Danube River basin, including the Beluga, are Critically Endangered. Illegal fishing - principally for their caviar - is the main direct threat to their survival.

“The survey demonstrates that caviar allegedly from wild sturgeons is still being offered for sale in Bulgaria and Romania despite the current ban,” said WWF’s Jutta Jahrl, author of the new report Illegal caviar trade in Bulgaria and Romania (PDF, 1.5 MB).

Although trade in farmed caviar is permitted if containers are specially labeled, eight of the caviar samples bought in fish shops or from street vendors did not have the mandatory labels and codes required under CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to indicate their legal origin.

Of three samples that did possess CITES labels, DNA analysis indicated they were from species or hybrids other than those declared on the label. Furthermore, five samples were mixtures containing more than one species of sturgeon, which is not permitted under the strict CITES rules (except for so called “pressed caviar”), while a further six samples were shown not to be sturgeon caviar, despite being explicitly sold as such.

“These cases demonstrate that Bulgaria and Romania need to improve significantly their implementation of European Union Wildlife Trade Regulations and CITES labelling provisions”, said TRAFFIC’s Katalin Kecse-Nagy.

“Consumers should only buy caviar that has authentic CITES labeling or risk being ripped-off or worse.”

In 2011, a TRAFFIC study compiled for WWF revealed illegal caviar from Bulgaria and Romania was regularly being seized elsewhere in the EU.

“Two years ago, attention was drawn to the need for Bulgaria and Romania to implement stronger controls over the caviar trade, but progress seems to be lacking”, said Kecse-Nagy.

Researchers also found that vendors in both countries, especially those offering supposedly illegal caviar, only sell to people they trust. The result is a covert chain of custody from poachers to customers involving middlemen and indicating a criminal network.

“The illegal caviar trade is not just a wildlife protection issue, it also involves contraband and organized crime, loss of tax revenue for the countries concerned and there are health and veterinary issues too,” said Kecse-Nagy.

“Effective enforcement is a vital prerequisite for a successful fight against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Tight inland and border controls are crucial, especially at the external frontiers of the EU i.e. Moldova, Ukraine and Turkey, together with good national and cross border co-operation.”

The report also recommends the use of modern technology, such as DNA analysis, to help in monitoring the caviar trade and for strict control measures to regulate online caviar sales and sturgeon aquaculture operations.

The report, Illegal caviar trade in Bulgaria and Romania (PDF, 1.5 MB), was funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and WWF.

Notes for editors

  • 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, and pollution are further contributing causes. However, 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.
  • 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 and in Bulgaria in 2011. The current ban ends at the end of 2015 in both countries.

For additional information or to request an expert interview, please contact:

WWF: Konstantin Ivanov,, direct +359 884 514636
TRAFFIC: Richard Thomas,, direct +44 1223 651782

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