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Europe’s wild sturgeons threatened by illegal fishing and caviar trade

18th June, 2013
Bucharest, Romania, 18th June 2013—Ongoing illegal fishing and trade in caviar in Romania and Bulgaria is threatening the survival of sturgeon in the Danube river basin according to a report by the WWF and Traffic. The project received financial support from the Mohamed bin Zayed Speceis Conservation Fund.
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). 

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 report. 

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, was funded by The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and WWF.