Within the space of less than a month, two specimens of a vanishingly rare fish have been plucked from the waters of the Rioni River in Georgia.
Before these two juveniles were caught, conservationists had expressed fears that the critically endangered ship sturgeon might have already sunk without trace. This extraordinary, other-worldly fish – whose evolution dates back hundreds of millions of years – had not been seen alive in the wild for many years.
A lack of solid scientific research on the species means that very little is known about the ecology and distribution of the ship sturgeon, but no one disputes that it is in deep trouble. In that context, the capture of two juvenile fish in quick succession, each estimated to be less than three years old, is extremely exciting news, raising the prospect that this elusive and gravely imperilled species might still be reproducing in the Rioni.
Sturgeons were once widespread throughout Europe, but have been virtually wiped out by a lethal combination of overharvesting, poaching and the loss of traditional spawning grounds to habitat destruction. The Rioni is one of the last three remaining refuges of these dwindling denizens of the Danube and the continent’s other great river systems. Remarkably, it still harbours breeding populations of several sturgeon species.