Modern aspects of study and protection of sturgeon populations in Ukraine
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The modern state of wild sturgeon populations in the Ukrainian reservoirs can be assessed as extremely unfavorable. From the six native sturgeon species, two are apparently already lost (European sturgeon and Ship Sturgeon), the number of the remaining four (Russian sturgeon, Beluga sturgeon, Sterlet sturgeon and Stellate sturgeon) continues to decline rapidly. The size and age structure of populations is changing; under the anthropogenic pressure, a smaller number of sturgeon individuals can survive till sexual maturity. The assignment of a high conservation status to all sturgeon species (all of them are included in the Red Book of Ukraine), the tightening of environmental legislation for damage to the environment, for poaching and trade of sturgeon products in general did not lead to any significant positive changes. It can be noted that all concern for the conservation of sturgeon fish is declared mainly on paper, and real, scientific based, consistent and effective actions to preserve and restore populations of wild sturgeons in Ukraine are practically not take place. It is quite obvious that an effective system of protective measures for the restoration of sturgeon should be built taking into basis of comprehensive scientific research of the current state of the species. However, with this necessary line of activity, the situation is very deplorable. There is no coordinated national program for sturgeon research in Ukraine; accordingly, funds from the budget for these purposes, if allocated, distributed according to the departmental principle and spent irrationally. In modern conditions, studies of sturgeons in Ukraine are carried out by few grants from world and European nature conservation organizations and donors and based on the personal enthusiasm of researchers. This situation cannot be called normal. If sturgeon fish are the most valuable property of Ukraine, their preservation for future generations should be a matter of concern for responsible state bodies. To develop and implement a system of measures for the protection and restoration of sturgeon, it is necessary to carry out the following research activities: - monitoring of wild populations, including limited research and control of commercial by-catch; - study of nutrition, behavior, migrations using modern fish tagging programs (CWT, PIT, acoustic, satellite tags, etc.); - study of key habitats which are critical for the survival of sturgeons (spawning, wintering, feeding sets, migration routes), which will allow to determine priorities for targeted improvement of conditions of survival and natural reproduction; - assessment of the current state of the base for certain sturgeon species and their age groups, determination of the modern "capacity" of habitats; - assessment of the genetic diversity of natural populations of sturgeon, determination of the possibility of maintaining sustainable natural reproduction, the feasibility and conditions of artificial reproduction; - preservation of the gene pool of native sturgeon populations in conditions of controlled artificial keeping, the formation of stock for replacement (priority should be the creation of Russian sturgeon stock spawning in the Dnieper River, which preservation is possible in Ukraine only); - assessment of the potential of the gene pool of native sturgeon species that are kept in Ukrainian facilities, determination of the possibility of use for controlled artificial reproduction and exchange with sturgeon facilities with other countries of the Black Sea-Azov basin. Similar sturgeon studies are carried out in the EU countries of the Danube basin. In Romania tens of millions of euros have been spent on sturgeon research in recent years. Ukraine's lagging based on this matter is obvious, and it can be overcome within the framework of close regional cooperation. In this brochure, some modern aspects of the study and conservation of sturgeon in Ukraine are considered, which mainly affect the region of the North-Western part of the Black Sea and the Danube and Dniester rivers. Based on the limited time as well as material and technical capacity, the obtained results can be noted as preliminary. The first experience in identifying the most important habitats of sterlet sturgeon in the upper Dniester is presented, the most important parts of the river are identified, which can potentially be used by sterlet sturgeon for wintering and spawning. The functionality of the identified habitats should be confirmed by further research. In the Kiliyskiy arm of the Danube, field work was carried out to describe the section of the river, which is used by juvenile sturgeon as a seasonal feeding area. The morphometry of the bottom of the river part was determined, the relationship between the distribution of benthos and the seasonal concentration of sturgeon youngsters was studied. The monitoring data of the downstream sturgeon youngsters migration are presented, which are an indirect indicator of the success of spawning of various sturgeon species. A certain dependence of spawning efficiency on the water regime and Danube water level was revealed. Preliminary results on the return of CWT tags obtained in the framework are presented implementation of the joint project of the Black Sea countries POP 18 / 22.04.2013. Sturgeon by-catches were studied during trawling in the North-Western part of the Black Sea. It is shown that all sturgeon species are most often observed in trawl bycatch. The brochure considers the experience of involving volunteers in sturgeon conservation activities. The main result of the volunteering initiative “Sturgeon watchers" for three seasons is raising the awareness of all stakeholders on sturgeon conservation and improving cooperation between them. The main legislative problems which also affected of sturgeon conservation were described. The Sturgeon Conservation Action Plan draft was considered as a main policy document for sturgeon conservation in Ukraine in 2021-2029. The document provides a comprehensive approach to management of sturgeon populations. The long-term goal of the Action Plan is a restoration of all wild sturgeon populations to status "Least concern" (IUCN) or "favorable" (Habitat Directive). Perspective directions of future research and projects prepared and scheduled for implementation by WWF Ukraine are presented. The implementation of the main goals and objectives of the Sturgeon Conservation Action Plan should save sturgeon populations from endangerment and significantly change population’s condition.