Researchers have found that almost half of all caviar is being procured from wild sturgeon despite this being illegal.

Caviar made from the eggs of wild sturgeon is now illegal, as the ancient fish was brought to the edge of extinction by poaching. Caviar can only be traded legally internationally if it comes from farmed sturgeon, reported Cell Press.

The regulations in place to protect the endangered species are being broken, however, according to a team of sturgeon specialists. The experts made the discovery by conducting isotope and genetic analyses on caviar from Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, all nations that border populations of remaining wild sturgeon.

The team found that half of the samples of commercial caviar products they tested were illegal, with some not even containing a trace of the fish.

“In Europe, the Danube is the last river with functional populations of Beluga (Huso huso), Russian (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), stellate (Acipenser stellatus), and sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) sturgeons. But the intensive exploitation of these populations, along with habitat alterations, has brought them to the brink of extinction,” the researchers, led by Arne Ludwig of the Leibniz-Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research, wrote in the study.

The study, “Poaching and illegal trade of Danube sturgeons,” was published in the journal Current Biology.

The four wild sturgeon species left in Europe that are able to produce caviar are found in the Black Sea and the Danube River. All of the species have been protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1998.

“The conservation status of the Danube sturgeon populations renders each individual important for their survival, and the observed intensity of poaching undermines any conservation effort,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Starting in 2000, the species’ CITES listing was accompanied by an international labeling system designed for all caviar products to end illegal trade. However, even with the protections, local accounts were that illegal poaching continued to occur, though no formal investigations were conducted.

In order to find out the actual source of caviar products produced in regions with native sturgeon that are sold commercially, the research team bought caviar in person and online from a variety of vendors, including local restaurants, shops, bars, markets and aquaculture facilities. Five samples were also included that had been confiscated by authorities. They collected and analyzed a total of 149 caviar and sturgeon meat samples.

The researchers analyzed DNA and isotope patterns from each sample and found that, of the samples, 21 percent came from wild-caught sturgeon that were sold in all countries included in the study. The team found that 29 percent violated CITES trade laws and regulations, which included listings of the incorrect country of origin or the wrong species. An additional 32 percent were categorized as “customer deception,” such as samples from fish raised using aquaculture rather than in the wild as the products said.

“Our results indicate an ongoing demand for wild sturgeon products, which is alarming, since these products endanger wild sturgeon populations,” the researchers wrote. “The persistent demand fuels poaching and indicates that consumers do not fully accept aquaculture products as a substitute. In addition, caviar being sold in violation of CITES and EU obligations questions the effectiveness of controls in general and the labeling system in particular.”

The researchers also found that a dish served in Romania called “sturgeon soup” did not contain any sturgeon, but was rather made from Nile perch and European catfish, reported Cell Press.

The researchers suggest that much of the illegal poaching could point to the economic stress being experienced by local fishers.

“The finding of many products sourced from wild populations can be interpreted as an indicator of the high fishing pressure due to the lack of alternative income opportunities for fishermen, as well as a lack of enforcement,” the authors wrote in the study. “At the same time, corruption cannot be excluded as a factor.”

The research team also indicated the likelihood that law enforcement is lacking in these regions, due to illegal poaching not being prioritized by local authorities or because the tools necessary to prove the illegal origin of a fish are not available. Either way, the researchers emphasized that fast action is crucial.

“Although poaching and illegal wildlife trade are often considered a problem in developing countries, these findings bear evidence that a high ratio of poached sturgeon products originates from EU and accession candidate states,” the authors wrote. “The control of caviar and sturgeon trade in the EU and candidate member states urgently needs improvement to ensure that Danube sturgeon populations will have a future.”

Original source: https://www.ecowatch.com

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