Elephants are not the only giants at risk from illegal wildlife trade

Some of the world’s largest freshwater fish are being poached to extinction

By Ekaterina Voynova, Senior Expert Wildlife Conservation, WWF-Bulgaria & Marc Goichot, Lead Freshwater, WWF Greater Mekong

© M.Yakovlev; Danube Biosphere Reserve

You may not have heard of sturgeons, but chances are you’ve heard of caviar — the salty black fish eggs that are a staple of luxury dining. But the cost of caviar is much higher than the often eye-watering price because poaching is pushing sturgeons, the fish that produce it, to the very brink of extinction.

Sturgeons can grow to gargantuan sizes. Beluga sturgeons have been known to exceed 6 metres in length and weigh over a tonne. These ancient fish have roamed the rivers of the Northern hemisphere for nearly 200 million years. But their survival is now in grave doubt. The IUCN classifies them as the most endangered group of species in the world — with 23 of the 27 species on the brink of extinction.

Today you can buy farmed caviar and sturgeon meat, but several factors, including demand for ‘authentic’ wild products, continue to fuel the illegal trade and sturgeon poaching remains rampant across their entire remaining range from Canada to Europe as well as in Russia.

© WWF / Suthep Kritsanavarin — Mekong Giant Catfish

And it’s not just sturgeon: the mammoth and endangered fish of the Mekong are also being caught and traded illegally, ending up on restaurant menus in Vietnam’s cities. The Mekong Giant Catfish, which can grow to the size of a small car, is particularly profitable for the criminal chefs who sell them, while the Giant Barb also remains a target for the traffickers.

© Zeb Hogan / WWF

These giant fish may not be as charismatic as elephants and rhinos, but they deserve to be the subject of global campaigns because they are indicators of the health of their rivers — rivers that support the livelihoods of millions of people across the world. And because there are existing prohibitions on trade in these iconic species.

International and domestic caviar trade is regulated by CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — through a mandatory labeling system. But several major caviar countries, which are both consumers and producers, have yet to implement the CITES Resolution regulating domestic trade. This means there is next to no traceability and no viable way to determine whether the caviar being sold in these markets comes from the wild or from legal, farmed sources. And these are big markets too — including USA, Ukraine and Russia.

Meanwhile, all international trade in the critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish has been banned by CITES since 1975. Yet demand still exists, particularly in Vietnam where most people do not know that trading and selling these fish is against the law. Indeed, whenever a Mekong Giant Catfish is caught and sold, local media usually celebrate the event and trumpet its monetary value.

©WWF Gozak

Around the world, momentum is growing to halt the illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horns and tiger bones. And there are increasing calls for urgent action to stop the poaching and trafficking of other species, such as pangolins, freshwater turtles and helmeted hornbills. It is time for sturgeons and the Mekong’s giants to be added to this list.

There are many long term threats to these fish. Existing dams have already fragmented their rivers and interrupted their migrations. Planned dams on the Mekong and many rivers in the Danube basin and the Balkans would wreak more havoc. Sand and gravel mining is disrupting critical ecosystems. Water pollution is increasing.

We need to tackle all these complex challenges. But first we must deal with the most immediate and direct threat by reducing demand for these fish and increasing efforts to prosecute criminals involved in the illegal giant fish trade. And we must start now.

This week, world leaders are coming together at the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London. Along with pledges to step up the fight to save the terrestrial poster species of the illegal trade, we hope they will also promise to throw a lifeline to the world’s rapidly disappearing freshwater giants.