WWF Romania Fresh Water team was very excited to meet Matt when he reached Bucharest this summer, on his way to Tulcea, to see the Danube Delta, before heading to Bulgaria, in the port of Burgas. We wanted to know everything about the motivation behind his amazing initiative.
He told us all about his plan to cycle from the UK to Kyrgyzstan, from April to October, to visit the last rivers with sturgeon still present. From the Garonne to the Danube to the Syr Darya. He wanted to make this happen to highlight the extreme peril that sturgeon as a species group face, with 23 of the 26 species listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN.
Growing up, Matt says he was fortunate to be in a family house with a fish tank, where he would spend hours of the day staring and marvelling at how all these fish could breathe underwater. This was the seed, and a voluntary experience in Georgia when he was 24 ( looking for sturgeon) was the germination of his passion for fisheries and conservation.
“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.”, he told us.
The past two years have been difficult for people everywhere around the world, and Matt recalls that, during lockdown, he was stuck in a small flat in London. Despite it being cramped in size, his room contained a large map of the world where his eyes and mind would wander in times of gloom or boredom.
“I would look at the map, scanning for the last rivers I knew that still had sturgeon swimming in them and look at the roads that connect and the mountains that divide 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 how we treat them and the rivers they call home, we might see the extinction of many species. Sturgeon have given me so much as a person and I feel obliged to help do my part to ensure their survival.“
Matt also tries to underline that 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's route through Europe and Asia, along specific rivers that still have sturgeons
From the outset, his route was based on specific rivers that still have sturgeon. This meant he took a very unusual route across Europe and Asia, as he wanted to get to explore some of the last wild places left. When we met him in Bucharest, he had already been cycling about 4000 km of the planned 11,000km.
The Garonne in France was first up, before he crossed the Alps and followed the River Po across Italy. After this, he intersected the Danube for several hundred miles to its Delta and after he left Bucharest he waited from a ferry from Bulgaria to cross the Black Sea to Georgia.
There, he planned to revisit old stomping grounds in the River Rioni basin, before crossing Azerbaijan and catching a ferry across to Kazakhstan. The final part of the journey was 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.
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan remained closed to him, so he had to detour to Armenia before sadly having to fly to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Matt never wanted or planned to fly “but sadly we still living in strange and uncertain times”, he says.
Now he has just crossed the desert separating Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, visited the Amu Darya with only one river now remaining before the end of the expedition: the great Syr Darya.
Matt's journey led him also to Romania. How was his trip to Danube Delta
Matt was very excited about Romania and all the other countries he reached, interested in seeing the shifting cultural norms between them. He was convinced each of the countries will bring their own challenges, but they will be offset by the adventures there.
We were glad to find out he had met with other WWF teams and partners along the way, all of them involved in wildlife conservation projects. “I have been extremely blessed on this trip to have met some many committed and passionate people.
In France I met with government fishery scientists, in Italy I met aqua culturalists who are restocking the Adriatic sturgeon alongside a caviar business, with profits from the caviar arm of the company directly funding conservation efforts. In Bulgaria I met the WWF team. I learned a lot about the effects of the iron gates dam, as well as WWFs plans to help reverse some of the huge declines the Danube has witnessed in the past 50 years. Hearing all the work that is going on, both focussed on sturgeon, and more holistically across the length of the Danube was inspiration and it gives me hope for a better future.
We asked Matt what is the piece of information that most stuck with him, from everything he learned so far about sturgeon's situation in the Danube.
“An old saying in England is ‘where there is life, there is hope’. The Danube, and much of Europe, has seen huge changes and damage to the environment over the past 50 years. What I have learnt on my time along the Danube is the extraordinary effort and will power going on for positive change. Something that has greatly inspired me to fight harder for British rivers upon my return.”
After finishing this mission, Matt says he will definitely remain in the conservation world, be that through further academia or getting a job upon my return. He would love to do a PhD on sturgeon and freshwater ecosystems.
He also shared with us some funny things that happened to him along the way:
“There have been plenty of funny moments, from being invited in to have a bath with a family, being force fed home-made brandy one lunch when I still had miles to cycle to laughing around a fire with shepherds. All are memorable and it is hard to single out one single moment.”
How can people join the journey or help out?
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 peoples' 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 track Matt’s progress on the expedition’s website: www.oneaveragespoke.org or follow him on Instagram one.average.spoke