The highly endangered sturgeons of the Danube River basin face fresh risks because of illegal trade in their caviar involving EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania, a report warns.
Bulgaria and Romania hold the only viable populations of wild sturgeons in the EU, but five of the six native sturgeon species in the Danube are critically endangered because of poaching, says the new report by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.
EU members countries reported five cases involving 27.5 kg of caviar from Bulgaria, and nine incidents yielding 25 kg from Romania, says the report prepared for the WWF environmental organisation.
Neither Bulgaria nor Romania reported confiscating illegal caviar.
“It is of concern that Bulgaria and Romania reported no seizures of caviar, while other EU member states registered several seizures where those two countries were implicated,” said Traffic's Katalin Kecse-Nagy, author of the report.
“The detected quantities are not very high, but we must bear in mind that the real volume of illegal trade is likely to be considerably higher and any illegal trade poses an unacceptable risk to these highly threatened species,” said Kecse-Nagy.
Traffic inside the EU 'harder to detect'
Kecse-Nagy points out that in 2007, both Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, meaning any illegal trade was within the Union, and therefore harder to detect and prevent.
In addition, due to their geographical position, the two countries are potential gateways for illicit caviar trade from the Caspian Sea, the most important sturgeon fishery in the world.
In 2009 German authorities seized caviar smuggled into the EU and labelled as Bulgarian-farmed caviar. Bulgaria and Romania are only permitted to trade in farmed caviar, but isotope analysis demonstrated the caviar had originated from the Caspian.
“This case demonstrates how permitted caviar farming was exploited to launder illegally sourced caviar into legal trade,” said Kecse-Nagy.
Olga Apostolova from the WWF's Danube-Carpathian Programme told EurActiv that it was more difficult to track illegal trade from Bulgaria and Romania since the countries had become part of the EU internal market.
According to official figures, export quotas for caviar of wild origin were gradually decreased for all species in both Romania and Bulgaria, going down to zero in 2006 in Romania for all species as well as in Bulgaria in 2007. Before the countries' EU accession, Bulgaria exported up to 3,726 kg in 2006, while Romania had reached a peak of 6,751 kg in 2000.
Aquaculture concealing illegal trade?
Analysis of legal trade data indicate a large increase in aquaculture production in Bulgaria for export, including within the EU.
"The assumption is that part of this increase could be explained by more illegal trading, Apostolova said.
Although this quick adaptation of the aquaculture industry is quite possible, further investigation would be required to exclude any possibility of "laundering" caviar of wild origin (whether from the Danube or elsewhere) via aquaculture operations, the report says.
Stoyan Mihov, a WWF official working in Bulgaria's Danube area, told EurActiv that the illegal trade in caviar probably falls in the category of organised crime, although no investigations had been made so far in this field by the police.
Aquaculture caviar most probably originates from wild caviar which is then sold on the EU market with an aquaculture label, therefore acting as a form of "caviar laundering", Mihov said.
Mihov said that a way to deal with the issue would be for the Bulgarian authorities to introduce a 5-year ban on sturgeon fishing, and simultaneously increase the control over sturgeon farms.