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Hope for sturgeons

Hope for sturgeons as European states adopts action plan to save continent’s most endangered fish species

After decades of plummeting numbers due to poaching and habitat loss, Europe’s sturgeon species have been given some much needed hope at last after 50 European countries and the European Union today signed up to a detailed continental-wide action plan to save the iconic fish.

The landmark commitment was adopted in Strasbourg by the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention, the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats – a legally binding regional conservation treaty, covering most of the natural heritage of the European continent.

The Pan-European Sturgeon Action Plan covers 8 European sturgeon species[1], 7 of which are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, while the last is classified as vulnerable to extinction. The plan aims to conserve the last surviving populations, restore habitats, end poaching and reintroduce sturgeon to many rivers.

“We now have a chance to save Europe’s sturgeons: extraordinary fish that can grow as big as a car and lived alongside the dinosaurs,” said Beate Striebel-Greiter, sturgeon expert of WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme. “European countries have stood by as sturgeons have vanished from all but a handful of rivers but now they have finally agreed to work together to save these amazing fish from extinction.”

While a couple of centuries ago they were widespread, nowadays sturgeon’s situation is dire - currently natural reproduction is registered in only two European rivers – the Danube and Rioni in Georgia. Small native populations are found in the Gironde river system in France and the Po in Italy, however they are probably not reproducing.

Globally 85% of sturgeon species are threatened with extinction, rendering them the most endangered species group in the world, according to IUCN.

Developed by WWF and the World Sturgeon Conservation Society, in cooperation with many international experts, the plan includes a range of measures to protect the existing populations as well as identify and protect other natural sturgeon habitats and migration corridors. European countries also committed to creating gene banks and taking other steps to reintroduce sturgeons back into the wild. Indeed, France, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, have already started reintroduction programmes.

Critically, the plan also outlines actions that countries will take to tackle poaching and the illegal trade in wild sturgeon products – the most immediate threat to the survival of the species.

“Cracking down on poaching and the illegal trade in wild caviar will buy the necessary time to allow other conservation efforts to safeguard the species in the long term to become functional”, said Jörn Gessner, sturgeon expert at World Sturgeon Conservation Society. “Countries need to do more than just sign this agreement, they must urgently take steps to implement it and work together: otherwise we will witness the extinction of these species in our lifetime.”

Sturgeons are ideal umbrella species due to the fact that they live long, mature late, and use many different habitats. Measures to improve habitats and integrity of populations taken for sturgeons will also benefit other species and communities. As such they are invaluable as indicators for environmental health.

The historic agreement comes a few weeks after WWF’s Living Planet Report highlighted the catastrophic decline in freshwater species – populations of which have fallen by 83 per cent since 1970. The decision also comes as the world is meeting in Egypt at the 14th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to discuss ways to halt the destruction of the natural world.

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[1] The 8 European native species are Russian sturgeon (Critically endangered), Adriatic sturgeon (Critically endangered), Ship sturgeon (Critically endangered), Stellate sturgeon (Critically endangered), Atlantic sturgeon (Critically endangered), Beluga sturgeon (Critically endangered), Baltic sturgeon (Critically endangered) and Sterlet (Endangered/vulnerable).

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