Sturgeon fishing is banned in the Danube, where five of the six sturgeon species native to the river basin are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, but according to the report compiled for WWF, persistent illegal trade in caviar involving Bulgaria and Romania is a major cause for concern.
These two countries hold the only viable populations of wild sturgeons in the European Union (EU), including beluga, star sturgeon and sterlet. Between 2000 and 2009, EU Member States reported a total of 14 seizures of illegal caviar, with 27.5kg originating from Bulgaria, and a further 25kg from Romania.
A lack of reporting
Despite the numerous seizures of illegal caviar carried out by EU Member States in which Bulgaria and Romania were implicated, no seizures were reported by either of the two countries themselves, a situation which is of concern to TRAFFIC’s Katalin Kecse-Nagy, author of the report: “The detected quantities are not very high, but we must bear in mind that the real volume of illegal trade is likely to be considerably higher and any illegal trade poses an unacceptable risk to these highly threatened species.”
Since 2007, when both Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, illicit trade has been harder to detect and prevent, as it has been occurring within the Union. The geographical location of the two countries compounds the problem further, with both being potential gateways for illegal caviar trade from the most important sturgeon fishery in the world: the Caspian Sea.
Bulgaria and Romania are only allowed to trade in farmed caviar, but this right has been exploited by those wishing to launder illegally sourced caviar into legal trade. In 2009, German authorities seized an illegal consignment which had been labelled as Bulgarian farmed caviar and smuggled into the EU, and isotope analysis of the confiscated goods confirmed that they had originated from the Caspian Sea.
As a result of a substantial increase in aquaculture production in Bulgaria for export purposes, including trade within the EU, Ms Kecse-Nagy feels that improved regulation is of paramount importance: “This means it is more vital than ever to regulate closely the caviar trade within the region to ensure illicit trade is not posing a threat to wild sturgeons.”
Fighting back – raising awareness
Jutta Jahrl, a sturgeon expert at WWF, points out that consumers in Europe demonstrate a low level of awareness with regards to the threats posed by the illegal caviar trade. Mr Jahrl states that even genuine traders have little knowledge of the requirements for labelling legal caviar, and urges traders and consumers to fight back against illicit trade by refusing to buy unlabelled caviar.
In order to prevent the extinction of sturgeon species in the Danube river basin, Mr Jahrl believes that the EU must become heavily involved: “The EU has a major responsibility to regulate the caviar trade because EU member states are the largest consumer of caviar from Romania and the second largest consumer of caviar from Bulgaria.”
The TRAFFIC report recognises the need for both Romania and Bulgaria to take action to combat the illegal trade in caviar, and recommends that both countries implement awareness raising schemes among their enforcement agencies, whilst strengthening their capacity to control and monitor trade.
Read more on this story and download the full report at WWF – Illegal caviar trade poses major threat to Danube sturgeons.
Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Species Text Author