The Dodo, the Quagga, the Danube Sturgeon and Us – Can You Spot the Pattern?

There is black gold hiding in the depths of the Danube, they say.

And ‘they’, are not wrong, if the illegal markets, crime rings and transnational organisations scattered throughout Europe have anything to say about it. But these gold-miners are quickly depleting the supposed treasure beyond the point of rescue, killing off a species that has managed to survive for millions of years faster than you can say ‘overfishing’. This species is no other than the Danube Sturgeon.

Now, the Danube Sturgeon comes in many shapes and sizes, perhaps the most impressive of which is the Beluga Sturgeon – so it should come as no surprise that it is the most sought after of them all, particularly given the value of its caviar. Such is the way of humanity. The Beluga Sturgeon, a whopper of a fish, is a remnant of ancient times gone by. It can grow to the length of a small bus (approx. 5 metres), easily outweighs the larger than average family at 1,200kg, and can outlive most peoples’ great Aunt Mildred, swimming the rivers and seas of the world for over 100 years. That is, if they are able to live that time without being snapped up by those who delight in the delicacy of caviar and sturgeon meat, or who are just out to make a pretty penny.


Figure 1:

The surprisingly competent illegal trade in sturgeon caviar and meat has forced five of the six sturgeon species that were once native to the Danube either to extinction, or to the very brink of it. And after looking at the statistics, it is easy to see why: it is estimated that illegal or unreported fishing can account for approximately 90% of sturgeon catch, despite national laws in place in the countries along the lower Danube. Combine this figure with the fact that 80% of the Danube’s former floodplains have been drained – floodplains which were essential to the spawning and feeding of the sturgeon – and then further with the information that it can take anywhere between 6 and 25 years for a sturgeon to reach sexual maturity, and we meet the typical dilemma of overfishing.

That is, there will be no sturgeon if the illegal industry carries on as it does. And doesn’t that just seem sad.

So, which countries are responsible? Who has been supporting the demand for this delicacy? Which countries have been unable to stop the trade of the, allegedly, most valuable fish of them all? Germany, France and Switzerland have been named and shamed as the largest importers of illegal black caviar, but there are markets all across the EU for it. Restaurants in Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, have proudly claimed that their black caviar comes from wild sturgeon – something that is, y’know, illegal in both countries.


Figure 2:

Romania and Bulgaria are in fact a primary source of much of the black caviar floating through the EU. Both countries border the Lower Danube, up which the sturgeon travel for the spawning season. There are, as mentioned earlier, laws in place forbidding the illegal catching of sturgeon, but this has not stopped other EU members from catching Bulgarian and Romanian-sourced caviar in raids and seizures within their own countries. The fact the Bulgaria and Romania have yet to announce any seizures of their own only points to the need for greater law enforcement in both countries – a problem that is more general to those two countries than the prevention of illegal sturgeon fishing.

This is the same sort of problem that is being faced by different species of fish all over the world. Cod and salmon are two which may spring to the mind of some. The UK’s fondness for fish and chips has contributed to the overwhelming pressure on the world’s populations of cod, and salmon is simply one of the most popular fish out there. Like these two breeds, sturgeon populations are being supported by artificial breeding. At the moment, around 90% of recruitment to the beluga sturgeon depends on human intervention. Yet it is still not enough.

All hope is not lost, however. The Danube Sturgeon Task Force, a branch of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), has created the ‘Sturgeon 2020’ programme which aims to ensure viable populations of sturgeon and other indigenous species by 2020. Fighting illegal fishing and the caviar black market is one of the key measures, alongside the restoration of migration routes and the harmonisation of legislation and law enforcement. A key aspect of this programme is the co-operation of Danubian countries, without which the programme stands very little chance of succeeding.

It is sad that the sturgeon, the so-called ‘Danube’s Flagship Endangered Species’, is only one of many, many, many other species that have suffered badly at the hands of a booming human population. The sturgeon has been pushed beyond the point of self-sustainability, and it is very difficult to go back. Given the fact that there are over 7 billion of us inhabiting this tiny place, leaving near irreversible footprints wherever we please, all in the name of ‘sustaining the human race’, is almost laughable. To save myself from running away on a tangent, I shall draw to a close here (oh, the temptation to ramble on).

The fate of the Danube sturgeon, in light of current law enforcement failures in key countries and the strength of the illegal market, seems a dark and dismal thing. It would be awful to see yet another species wiped out because of humanity’s insatiable need to have it all, without caring for the consequences.

Amy Denham, 11/06/2015




Did you find this interesting? Some other similar topics are out there, if you fancy a look:

  • Black Market Fishing

Illegal fishing is threatening the food supply of many communities, as fish are being caught from areas which fishers are not permitted to access. As well as putting pressure on the viability of the populations of fish, the livelihoods of coastal communities are threatened as their means of income are steadily depleted.

Find out more:

  • Live Export from Australia to the Middle East

Not much to do with extinction, but it is strong evidence of humanity’s dark side. The trade has garnered a lot of criticism from NGOs worldwide over the past decade or so. The export of live animals across the sea on long, dangerous journeys to the Middle East – on which many perish – often ends in a barbaric, long, and incredibly painful death. There have been some reforms to law to improve the conditions of the trade, but they have not been sufficient. The question of whether the trade is necessary, economically to Australia and socially to the Middle East, is interesting.
Find out more:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s