Certain species of fish in the Black Sea are on the brink of extinction here, warns the Grigore Antipa Institute, the Romanian National Institute for Marine Research in Bucharest. Sturgeon are the most endangered species, along with those that inhabit shallow coastal waters: turbot, sharks et al. “Turkey banned sturgeon fishing in its rivers in 1990, the Ukraine in ’96, on the river, Bulgaria in ’95, in the sea, and Romania only in 2005, in the sea, in the delta and the Danube. Those were excellent steps, but all the same the situation hasn’t improved,” signals Simon Nikolaev, the institute’s managing director. The culprits are poaching and pollution, which have damaged their habitat. To lay their eggs, for instance, sturgeon need well-oxygenated gravel layers, which are found only in clean water.

Over half of sturgeon species are endangered

“The species most in demand are also the ones that fetch the highest prices on the market. A kilo of farmed sturgeon costs €12-13, for example, and turbot roughly €9 a kilo – in Romania, that is: in Istanbul it’s more expensive, around €16,” Nikolaev adds. The problem is that the stocks of endangered fish species are being depleted faster than their life cycle. Sturgeon, for example, reach maturity pretty late, around the age of 12, and turbot at around 4 or 5 years of age. But to replenish the stocks, each species needs to be able to reproduce several times. As far as sturgeon are concerned, more than half the 30-odd species are liable to die out. Over the past few decades alone, the populations of spawn have shrunk by more than 70%.

In Moscow, 80% of the shops specialising in the sale of caviar now put fake certificates on their merchandise, according to an older study by TRAFFIC (WWF’s wildlife trade monitoring network). From 1998 to 2003, more than 1,200 metric tons of sturgeon eggs were illegally imported around the world – half of which by the EU. Sharks, sea horses and dolphins are endangered as well – especially dolphins, because they “commit suicide”: “There are a couple tens of thousands left in the sea, a few thousand of which accidentally get caught in the turbot fishing tackle, they’re attracted by the vibrations the equipment gives off. Apparently they suffocate. That happens to several thousand dolphins every year. In Romania, dolphins haven’t been hunted since ’67.”

Seals and shrimp already extinct in the Black Sea

Over the course of the past 30 years, several species have disappeared from the Black Sea: seals, shrimp and certain oysters, along with several dozen other species of flora and fauna. This decline is most conspicuous in the annual catch trend: in the mid-1980s, the annual catch exceeded 15,000 metric tons, whereas in 2008 it hardly came to 500. Since 1990 the quantity of fish caught in the Black Sea has been steadily on the wane. The marine equilibrium is still fragile, it will take several decades to restore the balance of nature the Black Sea possessed 50 years ago.

And that will only be possible if we stop polluting the sea and exploiting its resources – starting now. “The worst thing about it is that pollution goes hand in hand with the decrease in fish stocks. This is a semi-closed sea, so toxic substances accumulate and persist. It is true that after the 1990s and the disappearance of polluting heavy industries, the Black Sea underwent a phase of gradual restoration of the water quality. But that’s not enough,” Nicolaev insists. The Gigore Antipa Institute has now launched a fundraising campaign to support marine research. With the donations the director hopes to be able to set up a special laboratory in which to breed and rehabilitate certain species, the idea being to replenish the populations of shallow-water fish.