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Worrying results of the IUCN assessment: sturgeons slipping towards extinction

Two-thirds of species are now critically endangered with one confirmed extinct, which makes sturgeon the world's most threatened group of species.

Today IUCN released the world’s first comprehensive assessment of the species in over 13 years, which confirms all 26 remaining species are now threatened with extinction. Carried out by members of the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group (SSG), the new assessment highlights that almost two-thirds of sturgeon and paddlefish species are now critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It also officially declares the extinction of the Chinese paddlefish, the extinction in the wild of the Yangtze sturgeon, and the regional extinction of ship sturgeon in the Danube. 

“There’s something to be said about humanity, when a species that’s outlived the dinosaurs is pushed to the brink of extinction by humans who have, in comparison, existed for a meer blip in time. We have a choice: thriving healthy rivers that nourish and sustain communities around the world or stick with today's failed policies – leaving us with empty rivers that benefit neither people or nature”, said Iva Svilar from WWF Adria.

Poaching sturgeon for the illegal trade in wild caught caviar and meat is one of the leading causes of their demise. Last year, WWF revealed that one-third of caviar and meat products sold in the lower Danube region were sold illegally. Hydropower dams blocking their migration routes, unsustainable mining destroying their spawning grounds and habitat loss are other major threats to the species.

The assessment highlights once again, the urgent need for an ambitious global framework for nature  to be agreed upon by governments at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal later this year. In particular, the new deal must prioritise freshwater species and ecosystems, which have invariably been overlooked despite being among the most at risk. 

“The world’s failure to safeguard sturgeon species is an indictment of governments across the globe, who are failing to sustainably manage their rivers and live up to their commitments to conserve these iconic fish and halt the global loss of nature,” said Arne Ludwig, Chair of the IUCN Sturgeon Specialist Group. “These shocking – but sadly not surprising – assessments mean that sturgeon retain their unwanted title as the world’s most threatened group of species.”

Governments in Europe have agreed ambitious policies to protect sturgeon species under the Pan-European Action Plan for sturgeons. Yet, the status of sturgeons continues to worsen across the continent. Seven of the eight European species were already listed as critically endangered, and now the sterlet, the smallest, purely freshwater species, has been reclassified from vulnerable to endangered.

“The loss of the ship sturgeon from the Danube demonstrates the urgency to implement the Pan-European Action Plan for sturgeon, including measures to ensure upstream and downstream migration,” said Svilar. “There are no excuses for the current lack of action and no one else to blame: if governments across Europe and EU institutions do not act now to restore river connectivity and protect and restore sturgeon habitats in key rivers, the extinction of more sturgeon species will be on their hands.”

Despite the concerning update, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Following 30 years of restocking, young Adriatic sturgeon – a species that was previously thought to be extinct in the wild – has been documented in Italy. And the incredibly rare Amu Darya shovelnose sturgeon has been found in Uzbekistan – suggesting that these populations are still breeding and could potentially be revived. Meanwhile, long-term conservation efforts in North America have helped to stabilise and increase some sturgeon populations, including the white sturgeon in the Fraser River in the US.

IUCN, WSCS and WWF are working with partners to safeguard these species through scientific research, awareness raising and directly engaging in conservation projects to bridge the gap between science and management. 
 
European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio)

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