Danube’s en­dan­gered ‘liv­ing fos­sils,’ tee­ter­ing on the brink of ex­tinc­tion


Europe’s last wild stur­geons got a rare boost this sum­mer when the con­ser­va­tion­ist group World Wide Fund for Na­ture (WWF) Bulgaria re­leased more than 50,000 ba­bies of these pre­his­toric fish into the lower Danube, mark­ing the end of a three­year pro­ject co-funded by the Euro­pean Union.

These so-called gi­ant liv­ing fos­sils date back to the time of the di­nosaurs but are now tee­ter­ing on the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

“The stur­geons are a very an­cient species, which have sur­vived to our time from the era of the di­nosaurs al­most un­changed ... But they are now crit­i­cally en­dan­gered,” WWF Bulgaria coun­try man­ager Ves­selina Kavrakova told AFP.

Six va­ri­eties of stur­geons once lived in the Danube, the ex­pert said. Now only four of these species are left.

“The Bel­uga, Rus­sian and Stel­late stur­geons are listed in in­ter­na­tional clas­si­fi­ca­tions as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered and the small­est species, the Ster­lets — the ones we bred — are listed as vul­ner­a­ble but their con­di­tion is es­ti­mated as very bad,” she added.

The lower part of the river in Bulgaria and neigh­bor­ing Ro­ma­nia is home to the EU’s last still vi­able pop­u­la­tions of stur­geons, which live mostly in the Black Sea but swim up­river to spawn.

They can grow to up to 6 me­ters in length and live for 100 years.

Ex­ten­sive poach­ing for the stur­geons’ tasty meat and ex­pen­sive caviar has led to their dwin­dling stocks, though lo­cal fish­er­man Ru­men Ivanov in­sisted he had not heard of any­body catch­ing a stur­geon “in ages.”

To counter the trend, ex­perts have ap­pealed to the gov­ern­ments of Bulgaria and Ro­ma­nia to ex­tend their stur­geon fish­ing bans due to ex­pire next year.

Dan­ger­ous Jour­ney

The sun has barely risen in the quiet vil­lage of Ve­tren but a dozen fish ex­perts and fish­er­men are al­ready fever­ishly pre­par­ing the re­lease of the last batch of 2,000 wild stur­geons.

Bred from Ster­let caviar in ar­ti­fi­cial ponds some 400 kilo­me­ters away, they ar­rive in a big wa­ter tank and un­dergo a slow process known as “tem­per­ing” to help them get used to the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture in the river.

Once this is over, a splash of wa­ter and cheer­ful ap­plause ac­com­pany the 10- cen­time­ter minions as they em­bark on their jour­ney into the wild.

The hope is that many will sur­vive long enough to reach ma­tu­rity and throw their own caviar into the Danube within another three or four years.

The Ster­lets are the only stur­geon species that do not mi­grate to the Black sea. As a re­sult, WWF fish ex­perts and lo­cal fish­er­men will try to check on their flock by catch­ing them in fish­ing nets with smaller open­ings.

“Ev­ery one of the lit­tle fish that we re­lease is in­di­vid­u­ally marked with a minute me­tal wire with a num­ber, im­planted in the fish’s left front flip­per. If it is caught again, we will know that it is one of our fish,” ex­plained WWF’s stur­geon pro­ject of­fi­cer Stoyan Mi­hov.

“This way we will be able to mon­i­tor how they mi­grate, where they go, how they grow — all this valu­able in­for­ma­tion that is lack­ing now. In or­der to pro­tect a species, the first thing that you need to do is to un­der­stand its bi­ol­ogy and pe­cu­liar­i­ties.”

The WWF said it was en­cour­aged when its ex­perts found an ex­tremely rare two- month- old wild baby Bel­uga last sum­mer in the Danube.

Two more ba­bies born in the wild — a ster­let and a stel­late stur­geon — were also caught by the WWF ex­perts this sum­mer and re­leased back into the river.

“We keep our fin­gers crossed for as many as pos­si­ble to sur­vive and we hope to have more good news in a cou­ple of years,” Mi­hov said with a smile.


An olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tle ar­rives to spawn at Ix­tapilla beach, Aquila com­mu­nity, Mi­choa­can state, Mexico on Satur­day, Aug. 8. On av­er­age ap­prox­i­mately 50,000 tur­tles ar­rive to spawn in a three-to-five day pe­riod.

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