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New MEASURES for the conservation of migratory fish in the Danube

July 11, 2019
A juvenile Beluga sturgeon – or sterlet – bred to restock the Danube River as part of the MEASURES project. Image: Daniel Trauner | MEASURES

The Danube River is one of Europe’s most diverse and important freshwater systems. Sturgeons are flagship animals in the Danube catchment: iconic migratory species, which have existed since the time of dinosaurs, and are symbolic of the Danube’s historical heritage and ecological wealth.

However, the ability of sturgeon populations to migrate through the Danube catchment to spawn and feed has been restricted by human activities such as habitat destruction, dam construction and overfishing. According to the IUCN, 85% of global sturgeon species are threatened with extinction, making them the most endangered species group in the world.

MEASURES is a major new project which aims to manage and restore ecological corridors in the Danube River basin in an effort to boost populations of the six sturgeon species. Funded by the EU as part of the Danube Transnational Programme, MEASURES aims to improve habitat quality and connectivity along the Danube, not only to benefit sturgeon species, but also other migratory fish and the wider aquatic biodiversity in the basin, too.

The MEASURES team. Image: MEASURES

Cross-border collaboration for sturgeon conservation in Europe

The start of the MEASURES project follows the signing of the Pan-European Sturgeon Action Plan in November last year. The Action Plan covers eight European sturgeon species, seven of which are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It provides the first ever fish-specific action plan implemented as an EU Directive.

MEASURES is a collaboration between twelve partners across the Danube region, led by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria. The participation of a wide range of stakeholders in the project – national authorities, international organisations, academic and research institutions, and NGOs – offers MEASURES significant potential in developing conservation and restoration strategies throughout the Danube basin.

Co-operation across national borders is crucial in providing effective conservation schemes for migratory fish such as the sturgeon. Sturgeons have long lifespans (some species can live for 150 years), and most species migrate vast distances across diverse habitats at different stages of their lives. This potentially makes them ‘umbrella’ species for the conservation of other species, who may also benefit from habitat restoration and re-connection designed for sturgeon populations.

A juvenile Beluga sturgeon ready for release in the Danube River. Image: Thomas Friedrich | MEASURES

MEASURES for sturgeon conservation: three strategies

There are three key aspects to the MEASURES project. Over the next three years, project researchers will identify and map migratory fish habitats along the Danube basin. This will allow for a harmonised and improved strategy to re-connect migratory fish habitats.

Such ‘ecological corridors’ will be re-established and brought into policy and management plans in the Danube basin. Finally, a strategy to secure the dramatically declined Danube sturgeon species will be developed, including the design of appropriate broodstock facilities and conservation stocking approaches basin-wide.

Research, mapping, dialogue and outreach

An accessible online information system containing maps of species habitats and distributions, alongside articles, reports and multimedia will be created within the project, led by the Institute of Biology, at the Romanian Academy, Bucharest. A series of workshops designed to improve national and transnational dialogue and co-operation among researchers and different stakeholders across the Danube basin will be facilitated over the project life-span.

Migratory fish habitats will be mapped along the Danube basin (activity led by the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and Development), using historical data and contemporary maps, which will be ‘field tested’ through on-site ecological measurements and fishing activities. This work will produce a migratory fish ‘Habitat Mapping Manual’ which provides information on the identification, habitat, distribution, historical trends and contemporary threats to migratory species.

Newly released sterlets. Image: Thomas Friedrich | MEASURES

Genetic conservation and re-stocking

Genetic conservation is a key issue in MEASURES, and breeding and restocking programmes will be led by the National Agricultural Research and Innovation Centre, Research Institute for Fisheries in Hungary, who will produce a ‘Genetic Conservation Manual’ detailing the process. Restockings of two key species have already taken place in April 2019, with 3000 juvenile sterlets released in Hungary, and 1000 Russian sturgeons released in Romania.

A second round of re-stockings are planned for the autumn as part of a public event. Cutting-edge methods for detecting the presence of rare Danube sturgeon using eDNA testing in river water will be deployed together with the Joint Danube Survey organized by the ICPDR.

“Conservational restocking is one of many necessary actions to save endangered fish. In conjunction with the provision and restoration of habitat it is essential to increase the number of animals of species and populations on the very brink of extinction”, says Thomas Friedrich, an aquatic scientist from BOKU.

A new Strategy for the Danube Ecological Corridor

The activities will be brought together at the end of the MEASURES project by BOKU in a ‘Strategy for the Danube Ecological Corridor’, which will focus on habitat connectivity as a key policy and management issue. Overall, the project will significantly advance our understanding of the Danube basin, the interdependence of sturgeon species and their freshwater habitats, and the threats they face.

There is significant Europe-wide appetite for co-operation and collaboration in conserving and restoring for sturgeons. We will follow the progress of MEASURES, and related projects, over the coming months and years.

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MEASURES website

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