BLOG | Sturgeon: Unlikely Geopolitical Subjects

Hannah Dickinson on how geopolitics are enacted around - and through - sturgeon.

The following blog post by Hannah Dickinson is inspired by the presentations, discussion forums and informal chats she had at the 8th International Symposium on Sturgeon (ISS8) held in Vienna, Austria, September 11th-16th 2017.

Sturgeon are more critically endangered than any other species. A number of factors contribute cumulatively to sturgeon’s endangered status: namely, overfishing, habitat destruction, and river fragmentation. But what makes the endangered status of sturgeon even more precarious is the world’s voracious appetite for their ‘black pearls’: caviar.

In the closing ceremony of ISS8, it was said that sturgeon are “living encyclopaedias” due to their long lifespans, and the fact that their bodies – much like the rings of the tree – tell stories of climatic disturbances and environmental change. These can be dated to past events, such as periods of nuclear testing.

Finding out that sturgeon can corporeally display evidence of nuclear testing made me realise that these fish are inadvertent geopolitical subjects: these ‘living encyclopaedias’ can not only inform us about the geopolitical conditions of the past, but are also enrolled in the geopolitical conditions of the present. Sturgeon are species in which (geo)politics is enacted around and through.


The saliency of physical borders and their impact upon wildlife has come under renewed scrutiny in recent months, as President Trump voraciously defends his intention to “build the wall” between the US and Mexico, with apparent indifference for the ecological impacts this is likely to cause. Moreover, as the 12th Conference of the Parties for the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) recently took place in Manila, the question of migratory species’ ability to (rightfully) disregard international borders during their migratory movements was once again brought into stark relief. The fact that migratory species do not adhere to international boundary lines often creates disputes on inter and intra-national scales, and raises questions of ‘ownership’ and ‘responsibility’ for these species. BIOSEC’s Jared Margulies paints a vivid picture of such a situation in his account of tiger movements across states in India.

In the case of sturgeon, national borders are felt literally by the fish: not at the invisible lines where one country merges into another as they migrate upstream, but when their movement is blocked by dams.

Dams fragment rivers into upstream and downstream habitats, thereby impacting upon migratory fish such as sturgeon that depend upon accessing the river in its entirety. Damming prevents sturgeon reaching upstream spawning spots, and also affects the temperature and flow of rivers, which can negatively affect reproductive capacity and the development of the fish.

The detrimental impact of dams on migratory fish has been recognised by some nation-states such as the US who have begun to embark upon expensive dam-removal procedures and the implementation of fish ladders in places where dams cannot be removed. However within the EU, the process of dam-removal is not as straightforward due to the number of countries implicated in the process and the conflicting political interests at play.

For example, the Danube River is home to the only viable wild-sturgeon populations within Europe. However, the conservation of these fish is complicated by the fact that the Danube directly flows through ten countries[1]– more than any other river in the world – and the wider drainage basin extends into another nine. In such a highly interconnected system, the manner in which states utilise the sub-section of river within their national jurisdictions can have significant implications for other states upstream and/or downstream.

Upstream states are reliant upon dams to meet the energy needs of their populations (c.60% of Austria’s yearly electricity is generated from hydropower). Downstream, hydroelectric power is still important but a political priority is conserving existing sturgeon populations – a matter made harder by the density and proliferation of dams upstream. However for upstream states, the campaigns to remove dams to aid sturgeon conservation seem somewhat counterintuitive when poaching is proven to still be a significant problem downstream in Romania and Bulgaria.

(The distribution of HPP in the Danube River Basin – Source:ICPDR –

The conflict of interests at play illustrate the way in which many dams can be seen as physical manifestations of national borders, even if they are remote from the technical boundary lines of the state. In the case of dams located on the Danube River such as Iron Gates I and II, the dams become proxy national boundaries, where national politics are enacted around the mobility (or immobility) of sturgeon.


If discussions around borders illustrate how geopolitics is enacted around sturgeon, a discussion of caviar illustrates how geopolitics is enacted through sturgeon. When these living animals are rendered into a luxury commodity – caviar – they take on new geopolitical significance, as caviar can become enrolled in performances of politics.

For example, in July 2009 when President Obama took his first diplomatic visit to Russia, he was hosted by Russian President Putin and served a traditional Russian breakfast that included black caviar. The somewhat informal setting was lauded, presented as a positive step in offsetting tense relations between the two nation states. However, looking beneath the surface could suggest a different story entirely – one in which Obama could be seen as victim to Putin’s political game playing.

At the time, the commercial production, sale and consumption of beluga “black” caviar was illegal in Russia in order to protect the critically endangered beluga sturgeon. Thus, if the black caviar Obama consumed was of Russian origin, then it was almost certainly contraband. However, there were suggestions that Putin may have served Obama caviar legally imported from Iran, prompting commentators to say that “it is not clear what is politically more damaging for a U.S. president: to publicly eat Iranian caviar or Russian contraband. Putin indeed has a peculiar sense of humour”.

The breakfast was a symbolically saturated meeting, with caviar playing a significant role. Not only was caviar presented as a symbol of Russian tradition and heritage, but, in serving it to Obama, Putin forced the US President into a compromising position, regardless of whether the caviar was from Russia or Iran.

Moreover, more recent geopolitical developments have created implications for both Russian and Iranian caviar. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran had reigned as the “king” of sturgeon roe. However during the 2000s, as the international political climate soured against Iran and trade sanctions were put in the place, Russia re-entered the fore as principal caviar exporter to the world.


In a landmark move in 2016, international sanctions against Iran were lifted. As a result, Iranian caviar can find a route back onto the global market, including the US market. Interestingly, even though the US is not seeking to roll back the majority of its trade sanctions with Iran, it does have a specific exemption for Iranian caviar imports.

Thus, in the current context of lifted trade embargoes on Iran, and China emerging as the frontrunner of a rapidly growing global caviar aquaculture industry (over 1200 of the world’s c. 2000 sturgeon farms are located in China), the caviar industry is on the cusp of dramatic change. In terms of what this could mean geopolitically, it is hard to determine; but what is certain, is that the association of caviar with Russia and “Russianness”, will increasingly be diluted as the globalization of caviar production ensues, and new caviar ‘powers’ emerge.

A delegate at ISS8 summed up the current significance of caviar across the world and in the fashion industry in particular: “Caviar is hot… lipstick, nail polish, Chanel bags – everything has a caviar undertone to it now.” And it would seem that Geopolitics has a caviar (and sturgeon) undertone to it too.

[1] The Danube originates in Germany and flows southeast for 2,860km, passing through or touching the border of Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea.