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Bianca-Olivia Nita: Rewilding the Danube Delta

August 29, 2014

An environmental opportunity where the Danube River meets the Black Sea.

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Photo courtesy the author.

By Bianca-Olivia Nita

Sfântu Gheorghe is a village with the distinct feel of a fisherman’s home. Wherever you look, you catch glimpses of a community for whom fishing is no secret. The simple beauty of the village inspires an arresting quietness. It is located on the eastern extremity of the Danube Delta, the biggest wetland in Europe. The Delta covers more than 4100 square kilometers, a surface almost the size of Delaware. Three-quarters is in the southeast of Romania and the rest is in Ukraine. The Danube Delta has a continental climate, influenced strongly by its proximity to the Black Sea, and its biodiversity is unique: 340 species of birds find their home here throughout the year, and the region is also home to wildlife such as wild horses, boar, and fish. But the Delta was once much more abundant; its current conditions are the result of abuse starting during the 50 years of communism and extending past the fall of the regime in 1989.

Initially, the communist regime brought a certain degree of prosperity to Sfântu Gheorghe: electricity, television, and wooden fences for everyone. Most importantly, it opened the largest fish processing plant in the area in 1953, Cherhanaua Sfântu Gheorghe, which employed a majority of the villagers. Fishermen all over the region came to Sfântu Gheorghe to sell what they caught. With its centralized economy, the regime created an all-inclusive fishing system that worked. Overfishing was the norm, and the environment was steadily and systematically abused.

The new economic capitalist setup was foreign to the region, and once the plant had closed, the entire fishing industry in the area collapsed.

The plant, which ran twenty-four hours a day, prepared the fish for export by brining and packaging it in large jars. Most of the production was exported or went to the nomenklatura in power. Although the income from exports belonged to the state, the fishermen enjoyed job stability and the entire local community benefitted from the abundance of fish. The plant processed pike and Danube herring, but the most valuable fish processed was the sturgeon, a heavy fish, rich in caviar that could only be captured with special equipment in the Black Sea and along the Danube River. The caviar was primarily exported as well.

In the early 1990s, after the Revolution, the plant was closed. The new economic capitalist setup was foreign to the region, and once the plant had closed, the entire fishing industry in the area collapsed. The state authorities did not manage the transition properly at all, and desperate fishermen were left to make an income however they could. The little fishing that continued threatened the various species in the Delta, and in 2006, fishing sturgeon was officially prohibited. Sturgeon, historically part of a long fishing and culinary tradition in the Danube Delta, became the target of extensive poaching efforts, overhauling the relationship between the locals and their beloved fish. Fewer people would remember, or learn, how to fish sturgeon, an unprecedented moment in Sfântu Gheorghe’s more than 600-year history.

Sfântu Gheorge suffered nearly 25 years of uncertainty, unemployment, and unhappiness.

The ban impacted not only the local economy but also campaigns to protect the sturgeon, in which villagers were portrayed as poachers. Fishermen selling their catch without the benefit of a processing plant were forced to sell at low prices and pay middlemen. In this manner, Sfântu Gheorge suffered nearly 25 years of uncertainty, unemployment, and unhappiness.

Enter “Rewilding Europe,” a conservation initiative originating out of The Netherlands, that identified specific locations in Europe where it would provide financial and environmental assistance. Rewilding Europe, in collaboration with WWF Romania, has made it possible for Sfântu Gheorghe locals to apply for loans, while mandating that projects have a conservation component. Locals have applied for money to improve their pensions, boost their wildlife watching equipment and increase their overall capacity to offer tourists a rewarding wildlife experience. Rewilding Europe also seeks to educate locals and tourists about the potential of the Danube Delta, thus enhancing the environment and encouraging tourism. “The potential of the Danube Delta as a prime destination for nature lovers is enormous, but a lot must be done to improve the experience in terms of landscape, wildlife, and tourism offerings,” says Deli Saveedra, one of the two Rewilding Europe Regional Managers.

The aim is to make Europe a wilder place, and one aspect of the campaign is to reintroduce certain animal and fish species into areas where they have disappeared. The campaign believes that rewilding Europe will instigate a certain lost pride in nature, and empower local entrepreneurs and communities to manage their natural resources in a sustainable way. Back in Sfântu Gheorghe, the Old Lighthouse Association has applied for a loan to reopen the processing plant. Rewilding Europe believes that bringing a sustainable fishery back to the area could have a great impact on harvest strategies, fish quantity and conservation, and people’s livelihoods. It will also re-stabilize the fish market and re-employ locals. The Association intends to transform a section of the plant into a museum in collaboration with the Oslo Maritime Museum; the former plant facilities will also include a Research Center.

The main challenge is to encourage people to collaborate and take risks. There is a certain inherited reluctance to this.

“Our aim is to involve the community, not to make the rules. The main challenge is to encourage people to collaborate and take risks. There is a certain inherited reluctance to this. Even if you know that on the long term collaborating pays off, it takes time to change the mentality,” says Alexandra Panait, Rewilding Europe team leader for the Danube Delta area.

A similar initiative has been successfully implemented in Namibia. The main difference between that and Sfântu Ghoerghe is that in Namibia the project is backed by changes in the legislation. In Romania this has not yet happened. However, since late 2013, when the project began in Sfântu Gheorghe, the popularity of Rewilding Europe is on the rise. People feel the need to look out for the future. Hopefully, the plant will be reopened soon and this wonderful and unique place will grow to be not only healthy and self-sufficient, but also one of the main wildlife tourist destinations in Europe. It’s a matter of time before Sfantu Gheorge is restored to fisherman haven, and the Danube Delta can boast the best sturgeon.

Bianca-Olivia Nita is a freelance journalist based in The Hague, The Netherlands. She is most interested in people and in visual culture.

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