© Matthew Spencer

Cycling for sturgeon: 11,000km across Europe. An interview with Matt Spencer

Matthew Spencer recently left his job as the UK Fisheries Outreach Officer at the Marine Stewardship Council to follow a dream he hatched during lockdown: to cycle across Eurasia to raise awareness of sturgeon declines. As the most endangered group of species on the planet, sturgeon populations have plummeted in the last century, and time is now running out to save them.

SHOAL caught up with him to learn more about his motives and ambitions for this amazing project.

11,000km is a long way! What made you take on this adventure? 

The past two years have been difficult for people everywhere around the world. During lockdown, I was stuck in a small South London flat with a large world map behind my computer. In meetings, I would look at the map, scanning for the last rivers I knew that still had sturgeon swimming in them. This slowly morphed into a deep desire to actually visit these places whilst there was still sturgeon left. And so from this, an adventure was born.

Sturgeon are the world’s most endangered group of species and if we don’t change the way we treat their home rivers, we will witness the end of many sturgeon species in our lifetimes. My project will just be a drop in the ocean for what’s needed, but if enough people contributed in some way, meaningful results can be made.

The world is changing at an ever-increasing rate and, despite the great work that’s being done to fix problems, things still look bad for the environment. The idea of cycling for sturgeon evolved from a desire to support sturgeon in whatever way I could, whilst being able to explore the world before it changes.

Matt on the Tarne river

Matthew Spencer © Matthew Spencer

Tell us a bit about your personal background, and why you are focusing this adventure on sturgeon. 

When I came out of university, I found that all the jobs I was interested in asked that the candidates have a high level of prior experience – even entry level jobs. This obviously makes it really difficult to get a foot on the ladder in such a competitive sector. It was by sheer chance that I managed to gain some invaluable experience: I sent an email to Flora and Fauna International and, fortunately for me, somebody was prepared to take me on as an intern on a project looking to protect sturgeon in the Rioni River.

Sturgeon represent more to me than just species that I am fond of; they represent a first foray into conservation, and a moment where I understood what I wanted to do as a ‘career’ . They gave me an opportunity to make a mark on the world and try to make a positive difference.

My time spent chasing sturgeon in Georgia was a time of huge personal development, which opened my eyes to the human aspect of conservation and the mosaic of different cultures and communities that can exist along a river. From a village where the national language had yet to reach, to another town where poachers hid in plain sight, no two people or places were alike. This is important to bear in mind when what you are trying to achieve might impact others. The old saying goes, ‘fisheries management is people management, nothing to do with the fish’ … and I would imagine this logic applies to more than just fish.

What’s the route?

The route is based on specific rivers, meaning that it will be an unusual route that will hopefully throw me into some of the last wild places in Europe and Asia. The Garonne in France is first up, before crossing the Alps and following the River Po across Italy.

After this I will follow the Danube for several hundred miles to its Delta and cross the Black Sea to revisit old stomping grounds in the Rioni basin, before crossing Azerbaijan and catching a ferry across to Kazakhstan. I plan to finish in Tashkent after visiting the Syr Darya and conducting interviews with fishers to see if I can help with rediscovering the Syr Darya shovelnose sturgeon.

I’m excited by each of the countries, and it will be interesting to see the shifting cultural norms between them. I’m sure each of the countries will bring their own challenges, but they will be offset by the adventures there.

I have had to change the route already: I was planning on going through Ukraine, but of course that’s had to change due to the war there. I will also need to be cognisant of what it means to be a British person in some of the countries, particularly some of the ‘Stans’ – some of their economies are closely tied to the Russian economy and are suffering as a result.

Romanian locals

Locals in Romania who offered to buy Matt a beer and put him up for the night © Matthew Spencer

Off roading

Off roading in southern Hungary following the Drava river © Matthew Spencer

What are your plans when you visit sturgeon spawning sites? 

I’ll be visiting restocking and breeding facilities, joining anti-poaching controls on the Rioni River in Georgia, and meeting experts in as many countries as I can. I hope to shine a light on the local communities, NGOs and government bodies that are helping the sturgeon in some way.

Which sturgeon-related organisations will you be meeting with along the way? 

INRAE in France, Aquaculture centres such as Storione Ticino in Italy, WWF in Romania and Bulgaria, and FFI in Georgia, all the while being supported by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society and their network along the way.

What will people’s donations help to achieve? 

I am fundraising for Fauna and Flora International’s Caucasus sturgeon programme: all money raised will go towards increasing the protection of sturgeon in the Eastern Black Sea. Funding will be used to help fund Georgian masters and PhD research projects on sturgeon, further develop the fisher-eNGO network that has been built up and which is already reaping huge rewards, and lastly to support another survey of adjacent rivers to see if sturgeon are not just limited to the Rioni.

Sunset on the Danube

Sunset on the Danube looking out towards Bulgaria.  © Matthew Spencer

Camping near the Danube delta

Camping near the Danube delta © Matthew Spencer

How long do you think this adventure will take?

I started on April 6th, and plan to return in the first week of October. There is a myriad of issues ongoing globally, so I am trying to be flexible and realistic as I travel. The snows in the Central Asian highlands, and the closed roads they’ll bring about, will likely be a natural indicator of when I should be heading back home.

How can people get involved?

Glad you asked. The whole premise of this expedition is to raise awareness of sturgeon. Without knowledge of something, you are unlikely to want to protect it, so I am trying to bring the news of their sorry demise into as many people’s orbits as possible.

I am running a blog as I travel, highlighting the work being done and organisations I have met, as well as illuminating what solo adventure travel can be like – both the highs and the lows!

You can find more info on the trip and can track my progress on the expedition’s website: www.oneaveragespoke.org

Or follow me on Instagram one.average.spoke

Thanks to groups like SHOAL, I hope to make whatever impact I can and galvanise support and greater funding for sturgeon and freshwater conservation projects.

You can help Matt’s fundraising efforts at the link below. Proceeds go to Fauna & Flora International’s Caucasus sturgeon programme.


Gorges du Tarn

The dramatic Gorges du Tarn in southern France © Matthew Spencer