Caviar: Study finds 50% of European caviar tested is illegal - with some products not even from the right fish

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All caviar in Europe is supposed to come from farmed sturgeon, but a new study found one in five samples were from wild fish - while another 30% were mislabelled

A labelling system meant to protect at-risk wild fish from being poached for their caviar has been called into question by a new study, which has found up to half of the caviar in the EU may be illegal. Wild caviar - an expensive delicacy made from the eggs of the sturgeon fish - has been illegal for decades after poaching brought the species to the brink of extinction.

Today, legal, internationally-tradeable caviar can only come from farmed sturgeon, and there are strict regulations in place to help protect the species. However, a new study by Germany's Leibniz-Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research, published in science journal, Current Biology, on Monday (November 20), has discovered evidence that these regulations are being actively broken.

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A team of sturgeon experts genetically analysed caviar samples from Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine - countries which border the remaining wild sturgeon populations, and found half of the commercial caviar products they sampled were illegal, while some products did not contain any trace of sturgeon.

In Europe, there are four remaining sturgeon species that are capable of producing caviar, all protected under CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The last remaining wild populations in the European Union can be found in the Danube River and the Black Sea, and since 2000 a strict, international labelling system has been required for all caviar products to prevent them being poached.

All caviar in Europe is supposed to come from farmed sturgeon, but a new study found one in five samples were from wild fish (Photo: Adobe Stock)All caviar in Europe is supposed to come from farmed sturgeon, but a new study found one in five samples were from wild fish (Photo: Adobe Stock)
All caviar in Europe is supposed to come from farmed sturgeon, but a new study found one in five samples were from wild fish (Photo: Adobe Stock) | Adobe Stock

To find out the true source of the commercially sold caviar products being produced in native sturgeon regions, the researchers bought caviar both online and in person from local markets, shops, restaurants, bars and aquaculture facilities. They also included five samples that had been seized by authorities. In total, they collected and analysed 149 samples of caviar and sturgeon meat.

After analysing each sample’s DNA and isotope patterns, the team found that 21% of the samples came from wild-caught sturgeon, with wild-caught fish being sold in all of the countries studied. On top of this, 29% of the samples violated CITES regulations and trade laws, which included caviar that listed the wrong species of sturgeon or the wrong country of origin. The study also found another 32% were misleading the customer in some way - while three of the samples, served in Romania in a dish called “sturgeon soup,” weren’t sturgeon at all, but catfish or perch.

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“Our results indicate an ongoing demand for wild sturgeon products, which is alarming, since these products endanger wild sturgeon populations,” the researchers wrote. “The persistent demand fuels poaching and indicates that consumers do not fully accept aquaculture products as a substitute. In addition, caviar being sold in violation of CITES and EU obligations questions the effectiveness of controls in general and the labelling system in particular."

While the authors could not say for certain, they suggested the large amount of illegal poaching could mean local seafood vendors were not making enough money - which might increase the pressure to engage in illegal fishing activity. They also said there was likely a lack of effective law enforcement in these regions, either because stopping illegal poaching was not a priority for local authorities, or because they don’t have the tools to prove a fish’s illegal origin.

But regardless of the reasons, they said there needed to be action, and quickly, with every wild fish lost to poaching a blow to the population. “The conservation status of the Danube sturgeon populations renders each individual important for their survival, and the observed intensity of poaching undermines any conservation effort," they added.

“Although poaching and illegal wildlife trade are often considered a problem in developing countries, these findings bear evidence that a high proportion of poached sturgeon products originates from EU and accession candidate states... The control of caviar and sturgeon trade in the EU and candidate member states urgently needs improvement to ensure that Danube sturgeon populations will have a future.”

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