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Danube Day: Thousands Of Critically Endangered Beluga Sturgeon Released Into The Danube

Beluga Sturgeon. Photo: WWF Bulgaria

Over 7000 Beluga Sturgeon have been released into the Danube River to mark Danube Day 2020. Hundreds of people across Europe backed a WWF-Bulgaria crowdfunding appeal. Each one is now the proud parent of a 4.5 metre, 1000 kg sturgeon. Well, eventually. At the moment, the little darlings are only 10-15 cm.

The most recent release, following several others in previous years in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Austria, further boosts efforts to save one of the world’s most iconic and endangered fish. Specially raised on natural food in water tanks that mimicked river flows, and genetically tested to ensure they are of Danube origin, the newly released 3-month-old Beluga sturgeons have an excellent chance of finding food and avoiding predators – and surviving the long migration down to the Danube Delta. 

All of the sturgeons were tagged so that WWF and its scientific partners will be able to follow them along their journey to the Black Sea and monitor their subsequent development. The monitoring will also provide critical information about the behavior of Beluga sturgeon, such as their migration patterns and key habitats.

“Watching thousands of strong young sturgeon swimming off into the Danube was an extraordinary experience,” said WWF-Bulgaria’s Stoyan Mihov, who oversaw the release. “These fish will now head for the Black Sea, where they will grow into some of the biggest freshwater fish on Earth – and help replenish one of the very last naturally-reproducing populations of Beluga sturgeon in the world.”

Along with five other sturgeon species in the Danube, Beluga sturgeon numbers have collapsed in recent decades due to overfishing and dams blocking their migratory routes. The gravest threat to their survival today is poaching to supply Europe’s flourishing illegal trade in wild caviar and meat. Within the EU, the Danube is the only river remaining with naturally reproducing sturgeon populations. Sturgeon and other migratory fish species represent the historical, economic and natural heritage of the Danube. 

Furthermore, they are indicators of the ecological status of the river’s watercourses, especially concerning the function of the river as an ecological corridor. Therefore, transnational management and restoration actions to re-establish these corridors as migration routes and the fight against poaching, as well as stocking with indigenous species such as Belugas are essential until we have achieved a self-sustaining population again.

“We will continue to release sturgeon into the Danube but this is not a long term fix. We need to stop illegal fishing, improve transnational management of the Danube and restore degraded parts of the river basin – work that will benefit people and nature as well as sturgeon,” said Beate Striebel, WWF Lead Global Sturgeon initiative. "This is our goal – to help restore the Danube so that these young sturgeon will be able to survive and thrive when they return."

The funds for the reintroduction were donated by 1399 individuals from across Europe who contributed to the project through WWF’s first online crowdfunding campaign for sturgeon. For the equivalent cost of 2 scoops of ice-cream or a pint of beer, contributors could purchase a baby sturgeon for release into the Danube.

"The incredible response to our crowdfunding campaign and the interest of Danube communities in the release shows how concerned people across Europe are about the survival of sturgeon,” said Iain Jackson, Conservation Manager, WWF-Bulgaria.

"Releasing thousands of young sturgeon is a huge boost, but we still need to tackle the main threats to the species, particularly poaching. Europeans need to realise that wildlife crime is not just happening far away in Africa and Asia. It is happening right here in our rivers and it could lead to the extinction of the Beluga sturgeon – a fish that used to grow to be bigger than bears.”

Biodiversity must be protected in order to protect our own health as well as the planet's. This is why the EU Biodiversity Strategy under the European Green Deal must do more to protect critically endangered species like sturgeons, provide a strong push towards shutting down illegal wildlife trade, and preserve ecosystems such as the Danube and old-growth forests. Future pandemics will only be avoided if people learn to live in harmony with nature.

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