Measures to protect sturgeon in the Danube from poaching often do not seem to be sufficient. This is suggested by a study for which researchers examined almost 150 caviar and sturgeon meat samples. By means of genetic material and so-called isotope analyses, they proved a partly illegal origin of the fish products. The observed intensity of poaching undermines any conservation efforts, writes the team of authors led by Arne Ludwig from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin in the journal "Current Biology". The trade in caviar and sturgeon urgently needs to be improved in order to secure the future of the stocks.

Caviar is the name given to the eggs of various sturgeon species that are caught in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, among other places. The high price and continued demand have brought a majority of species to the brink of extinction. Caviar is usually obtained by slaughtering the sturgeon.

Common Deceptions

To verify the origin, the team obtained samples from various sources, such as trade and gastronomy, in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. Five samples had been confiscated by authorities. The result: In all four countries, products made from wild sturgeon were traded. In 21 percent of all caviar and sturgeon meat samples, the researchers determined an origin in the wild. In around eleven percent of cases, they believe that existing rules have been violated, for example if the wrong type of sturgeon or the wrong country of origin was indicated for caviar. And just under a third are classified as deceiving consumers.

Even though poaching and illegal wildlife trade are often seen as a problem for developing countries, the results are evidence that a high proportion of poached sturgeon products come from the EU and candidate countries, the researchers write.

In addition, they report that some of the products were passed off as wild products, even though they actually came from aquaculture. So, the results also suggested that there is still a demand for products made from wild sturgeon. This encourages poaching and is an indication that consumers do not accept aquaculture products as a complete substitute. In individual cases, the investigations showed that no trace of the fish could be found in alleged sturgeon products.

Results are alarming

According to the study, fishing for sturgeon is prohibited in the Danube in view of endangered stocks, and every single individual is important for their survival. Since 1998, all sturgeon species have been protected by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and since 2000 an international labelling system for caviar products has been intended to counteract illegal trade.

Today, according to the Berlin institute, caviar can almost exclusively come from farmed sturgeons. The sale of caviar found in the study, which violates CITES and EU obligations, calls into question the effectiveness of controls in general and the labelling system in particular, said co-author Jutta Jahrl. She is the manager of a sturgeon protection project at WWF Austria, which was also involved in the study. In the study, the team evaluates the results as "alarming".