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Sturgeon, which comprise some 25 species of fish, are one of the oldest families of fishes in existence. They are valued, around the world for their precious roe; and nearly 85% of sturgeon are at risk of extinction, making them the most threatened group of animals on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The latest update of the Red List assessed the status of 18 species of sturgeon from all over Europe and Asia and found that all were vulnerable. 

27 species of sturgeon are on the IUCN Red List with almost 65% listed as “Critically Endangered”, the Red List’s uppermost category of threat. 4 species are now conceivably extinct.

For the first time, beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea are listed as “critically endangered”, as are all of the other commercially important Caspian Sea species (the main producers of wild caviar). Beluga Sturgeon populations have been devastated in part due to unremitting exploitation for their caviar– considered the finest in the world. The other species, Russian, Persian, Stellate, and Ship Sturgeon have also suffered drops due to overfishing as well as habitat degradation in the Caspian Sea region.

“While these new rankings are depressing, they are also a call for action. It’s time to seriously consider ending fishing in the Caspian Sea region and in other areas where species are classified as Critically Endangered,” says Dr Phaedra Doukakis, (IUCN’s Sturgeon Specialist Group and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University). 

In addition to the Caspian Sea species, sturgeon from other areas of Asia and Europe were also evaluated. Among them was the Chinese Paddlefish, one of only two paddlefish in existence and now considered “critically endangered” and conceivably extinct. This was one of four species that were found to be possibly extinct. Russian Far East species were also assessed, including the Kaluga, a sister species of Beluga, which inhabits the Amur River and is still subject to commercial exploitation. This species, along with the Amur Sturgeon, is now classified as “critically endangered”.

“This widespread evidence of decline alerts us to the fact that despite protective fishing regulations, sturgeon are still in trouble.” says Dr Kent Carpenter, IUCN Global Marine Species Assessment Director

Sturgeon can live for up to 100 years and do not reproduce annually, which means they take many years to improve from any population declines. They are a highly valuable group of species, with caviar from the beluga sturgeon fetching up to US$10,000/kg. This leads to over-harvesting, both legal and illegal, of many species, – a major threat to their survival. 

In addition, they are a migratory group of species, the damming of rivers across Europe, Asia and North America over the past century has led to many sturgeon species losing access to vast areas of their spawning grounds.

Ironically, the very thing that is coveted from these fish, may save them. Since these fish have the ability to produce millions of eggs; with proper protection, this reproductive capability may gradually replenish their populations.

“Sturgeon have survived dramatic change over the past 250 million years only to face the serious threat of becoming extinct as a direct result of human involvement. There are a number of factors aiding in their extinction: illegal catching, over fishing, the breaking up of the migratory routes, and pollution that directly affect their numbers.” (Dr Mohammad Pourkazemi, chair IUCN/SSC Sturgeon Specialist Group).

In the late 1800s, amidst the caviar boom in North America, much of the caviar harvested and shipped to Europe was imported right back to the USA again, labeled as the more coveted “Russian caviar.” Caviar from the rivers of Russia had always been considered premium. In 1900, the state of Pennsylvania issued a report estimating that 90% of the Russian caviar sold in Europe actually came from the US. Thanks to DNA testing, this illegal practice has all but been eliminated.

As a result of the US caviar boom of the early 1900’s, sturgeon was over-fished to the point of extinction. The sudden shortage caused a huge increase in the price of caviar. So many of the fish were harvested for their caviar, that by 1906, a ban was placed on commercial sturgeon fishing. But it was already too late, consumers wanted caviar. To compound matters, Cesar Ritz put it on his menu with his world-class French chef, and caviar’s place in high class restaurants was secured- further adding to the fish’s decline.

The 1906 ban wasn’t enough to counter the depopulation in sturgeon that had already taken place, however, and the numbers continued to diminish. In the 1960s, the price skyrocketed due to limited supply, inspiring enthusiasts in greater numbers to farm the fish in hopes of a quick profit. It wasn’t long before extreme steps had to be taken as even the Caspian, home to at least 90% of the world’s population of sturgeon, began to see a serious drop in numbers of fish. 

Limits or bans on fishing as well as export bans on the caviar have found recent support. Such activities drive the price higher, which then encourages more poaching in the ancient waters, but conservationists feel little more can be done. 

By the 1960’s, the prices were so ridiculous that new sources of domestic caviar were sought.

The Romanoff Caviar Company (originally established in 1859) turned to salmon roe (red salmon caviar), lumpfish, and later in 1982, whitefish (known as golden whitefish caviar) as more economical sources than their imported counterparts.

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