Report claims one-fifth of caviar and meat sold in key markets illegal

Published on
June 15, 2021

A survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has revealed that the trade of caviar and sturgeon-based products in four key European countries continues to be plagued by illegal trading, hindering the recovery of seven of eight species of sturgeon in Eastern Europe that are on the brink of extinction.

WWF conducted a market survey within the European Union-funded LIFE project and published a resulting paper, "Sustainable Protection of Lower Danube Sturgeons by Preventing and Counteracting Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade," laying out its findings. The research covered Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine – countries where sturgeon breed in the Lower Danube River and the northwestern Black Sea region. The Danube, along with the Rioni River in Georgia’s Caucasus, is one of two remaining rivers where migrating sturgeons reproduce naturally.

The survey used samples from various parts of the supply chain – aquaculture farms, shops, restaurants, local markets, and reports by governments on poaching and illegal fishing activities. 

Two research methods were applied to identify the origin of the product samples: isotope analysis and DNA testing. The combination of both methods, a unique feature of the research, helped researchers understand how a sample was produced – caught in the wild or farmed – providing a high degree of certainty to the researchers' conclusions.

The tests showed that wild sturgeon products were being sold in all four countries studied. In total, 145 samples were tested, and 19 percent of those tested originated from wild sturgeon, despite the prohibition of trade on the products in the region. Another 12 percent of samples were not in compliance with international trade regulations, with an absence of mandatory CITES labeling, or correct codes for species or country of origin. 

Relating official data, 214 cases of poaching were reported in the four countries from 2016 to 2020. A wide range of causes were recorded – including having sturgeon in boats or fishing nets, possessing illegal sturgeon fishing gear, transportation of poached sturgeon, and the sale of caviar or meat of poached sturgeon. 

WWF Global Sturgeon Initiative Lead Beate Striebel said the conclusions of the study are “worrying.”

“Sturgeon are already the most-endangered group of species on Earth and this alarming report details one of the gravest threats to their survival: the ongoing poaching of sturgeon in the Lower Danube and Black Sea regions to meet the demand for illegal wild caviar and meat,” Striebel said.

Even more worrying, Striebel said, is the fact the study is likely missing even more instances of illegal trafficking.

“We have to assume that these results are just the tip of the trafficking iceberg, underlining how much demand there still is for illegal wild sturgeon products and how serious this threat is to the future of Europe’s last wild breeding populations of sturgeon,” WWF Project Manager Jutta Jahrl said.

WWF recommended enhanced controls on domestic trade and borders, improved cooperation and coordination, and the use of more state-of-the-art forensic analysis and market surveys. It also emphasized the need to introduce CITES to all caviar labeling. 

Sturgeon face an existential threat to their existence even outside the four countries surveyed by WWF. The largest water body for the species to replenish – the Caspian Sea – once saw yearly catches of 50,000 metric tons (MT). That was the trend until the late 20th century, with sturgeon caught in the sea accounting for up to 90 percent of the world's catch.

In the early 21st century, Caspian Sea sturgeon popoulations decreased dramatically. In response, countries bordering the sea began to impose moratoriums on the fishery. Russia first instituted a ban in 2007, with the four other countries bordering the sea – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan – also enacting moratoriums due to overfishing and poaching in 2014. The ban is reviewed every year, and hasn't been lifted since.

Currently, only farmed sturgeon is allowed to be traded, with minor exceptions for indigenous populations in Siberia. But poaching remains a major problem, with poachers hunting primarily for black caviar, according to Russia's Federal Agency for Fisheries.   

Photo courtesy of Ga_Na/Shutterstock

Reporting from Saint Petersburg, Russia

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