What is a Russian Sturgeon?

J.L. Drede

A Russian sturgeon is a fish of the Acipenseridae family, under the genus of Acipenser. It's scientific name is Acipenser gueldenstaedtii. In the past, it was a prized fish both for its size and for its caviar. Today the fish is critically endangered. The fish's geographic range used to include the Caspian, Black and Azov seas. Today it is only found in the Caspian Sea and the surrounding areas. It is native to the countries of Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Turkmeninstan and the Ukraine. Formerly the fish was found in Austria, Croatia and Hungary, but it is now extinct in those locations.

Caviar is a prized commodity harvested from a Russian sturgeon.
Caviar is a prized commodity harvested from a Russian sturgeon.

The Russian sturgeon can grow to be a very large fish, measuring more than 6 feet (2 meters) in length with weight in excess of 250 pounds (113 kg). It is black an white in coloration, with the body being black while the dorsal fins and belly are white. It usually feeds on smaller fish, mollusks and crustaceans. It is a shallow-dwelling fish, rarely going below 98 feet (30 meters) in depth. It is mostly seen alone, groups of the fish are typically only seen during spawning, which is in May and June. The fish is very slow to mature, and can live for close to 50 years. This slow maturity makes it especially vulnerable to overfishing.

Sturgeon caviar with crème fraîche and basil.
Sturgeon caviar with crème fraîche and basil.

In the past, Russin sturgeon were prized fish, both commercially and for sport. The massive size of the fish made it a popular gaming target, while its caviar made it a valuable commodity for commercial fishermen. Since 1996 the fish has been categorized as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Currently the fish is categorized as "Critically Endangered," which is one step above being classified as extinct in the wild.

Efforts to curtail fishing of the Russian sturgeon have not been entirely successful. While there are laws in many countries to limit or completely restrict the fishing of the animal, they are routinely ignored by local fishermen. Fishing is not the only reason for the fish's massive population decline. A major contributor to its decreasing levels is dam construction. Dams built around the Caspian basin since the 1950s have eliminated more than 70 precent of the fish's spawning grounds, making it very difficult for the fish to breed. Pollution of waters from oil and industrial waste is also killing the fish in mass numbers. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Russian sturegon, if not more, have been killed as a direct result of water pollution.

Efforts have been made to breed the Russian sturgeon in captivity and release life fish into the wild, but they have not been very successful. In the 1990s, millions of fry were released into the Volga river and Sea of Azov in an effort to restore populations of Russian Sturgeon, neither were very successful. According to the IUCN only one natural population of the fish still exists in the wild, and it is being heavily overfished.

Today, the Russian sturgeon is only found in the Caspian Sea.
Today, the Russian sturgeon is only found in the Caspian Sea.

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