Bulgaria Bans Fishing for Endangered Danube Sturgeons

SOFIA, Bulgaria, May 3, 2011 (ENS) – There is fresh hope for the survival of Critically Endangered Danube sturgeons with the imposition of a fishing ban in Bulgaria. The ancient migratory fish are at the brink of extinction from overfishing for the lucrative caviar market.

Bulgarian authorities have announced a one-year ban, joining the efforts of neighboring Romania, which is in the middle of a 10-year caviar fishing ban.

“This is the first time Bulgaria has banned sturgeon catching in the Danube,” said Ivaylo Simeonov, head of management and monitoring of fisheries at Bulgaria’s National Agency of Fisheries and Aquaculture. “We did have a ban on sturgeon catching in 2008, but only for the Black Sea.”

“WWF welcomes this admirable development. This is a great step for Danube sturgeons,” said Jutta Jahrl, Danube sturgeon expert at the global conservation organization.

Danube River sturgeon caught in Romania, 2007. (Photo credit unknown)

“What this means is that Bulgaria is really giving the sturgeons a break, joining Romania in this very important measure,” said Jahrl. “The Romanian moratorium came into force in April 2006, but considering that the Danube serves as a national border between Bulgaria and Romania, a one-sided ban cannot have any impact if fishermen on the other side are still catching the fish.”

Adult sturgeons live in estuaries and coastal waters but swim upstream to spawn. 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.

The one-year ban on the part of Bulgaria is a prelude to a five-year ban which is scheduled to start in 2012.

“At the Fisheries Agency we have already prepared the terms of the five-year ban,” Simeonov said. “Under the terms of the proposed ban, various activities in support of sturgeon populations will be carried out, for example restocking of fish populations and monitoring of the status of sturgeons.”

An information campaign among fishing communities and better enforcement of the ban are also planned for 2012.

Until the 19th century, giant Beluga sturgeons migrated from the Black Sea up the Danube River as far as Germany and were important mainstays for many fishing communities.

Originating 200 million years ago, sturgeons have outlasted the dinosaurs, but today most species are critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Sturgeon caught in the Danube River near the Iron Gates Dam (Photo credit unknown)

Dams such as the Iron Gates between Serbia and Romania that have cut off the migration routes of sturgeons, the consequent loss of spawning habitats and especially overexploitation of the fish, driven by caviar consumption, all threaten sturgeon survival.

“Overfishing – principally for caviar – is the biggest cause for concern, but habitat alteration, including hydropower, and pollution are contributing causes.” said WWF Wildlife Trade Officer Colman O’Criodain.

Trade in sturgeon caviar is an extremely profitable business. Caviar is one of the most expensive wildlife products, fetching retail prices of 6,000 euros and up per kilogram. Among the sturgeon species native to the Danube basin is the Beluga sturgeon, famed for its expensive caviar.

Until 2007 quotas for caviar export existed and were distributed among Lower Danube countries. But in 2007 fisheries authorities realized that sturgeon populations had plummeted and Lower Danube countries could not fulfill even half of their quotas.

This led to a ban on caviar exports from natural fish populations, as opposed to farmed fish, from all Lower Danube countries imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

But the ban has resulted in a thriving black market in wild caviar from the Lower Danube region. Between 2000 and 2005, authorities seized over 12 metric tonnes of illegal caviar in the European Union.

In an effort to stop illegal trade, CITES member countries have agreed on comprehensive chain-of-custody labeling, which aims to track caviar from its origin to the consumer. But loopholes still allow illegal caviar to reach consumers.

Officially, most of the caviar from Lower Danube countries in circulation today is from farm-raised sturgeon.

“Although international regulations are good, there are still loopholes. Caviar for personal use is excepted from any requirements,” Jahrl said.

“Furthermore, there is no general rule for the printing of labels, no general design apart from the code or any obligatory safety feature,” he said. “In a few countries lables are printed by the state but usually the companies print them themselves, so it’s easy to forge them.”

“On top of this, consumer awareness in Western Europe seems to be rather low. Even legal traders of caviar do not know much about labeling requirements. It is crucial that traders and consumers are more aware of the issue and do not buy caviar without labels,” said Jahrl. “This would be a strong force against illegal trade.”

Jahrl urged the EU, a major caviar producer and consumer market, to amend its legislation to close all the loopholes.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.