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Europe’s Caviar Has a Poaching Problem

A tin of caviar.
Credit: Photo by Robert Anasch/Unsplash
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Within the European Union, caviar, the famously fancy delicacy, can only legally be sourced from farmed sturgeon. Yet, according to a new study, it seems much of the caviar sold in Eastern Europe is sourced from wild fish, illegally.

The findings were published in Current Biology.

Poach local

There are four remaining sturgeon species in Europe that are capable of producing caviar. The last remaining wild populations of these species in the EU can be found in the Danube River and the Black Sea. Each species has been protected since 1998 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Despite these protections, however, poaching has continued along the Danube and in the Black Sea, at least according to local anecdotal reports.

After deciding to investigate these anecdotes, the researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research bought caviar from local markets, shops, restaurants and bars. In total, they collected 149 samples of caviar and sturgeon meat.

The team then isolated and analyzed DNA from the products. Genetic isotope patterns were compared to determine whether the fish were sourced from the wild or from licensed fish farms.

The researchers found that 21% of the samples came from wild-caught sturgeons; these fish were sold in all the countries studied. A slightly higher proportion, 29%, of the samples violated CITES regulations and trade laws. Violations included listing caviar under the wrong species of sturgeon or the wrong country of origin. The team also judged that 32% of samples were guilty of “customer deception,” such as declaring products as “wild” when they actually originated from aquaculture.  

“Our results indicate an ongoing demand for wild sturgeon products, which is alarming, since these products endanger wild sturgeon populations,” write the researchers in their paper. “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 suggest that the large volume of illegal poaching activity could be an indicator that local seafood vendors are lacking adequate income opportunities, which might increase the pressure to engage in illegal fishing activity. Regardless of the reasons, they stress that action must still be taken quickly to protect the endangered fish.

“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,” write the authors. “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.”

Ludwig A, Jahrl J, Congiu L, et al. Poaching and illegal trade of Danube sturgeons. Curr Bio. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.09.067

This is a rework of
a press release published by Cell Press. Material has been edited for length and content.