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Once upon a time, sturgeon the size of school buses roamed the oceans, seas, and rivers of the world. Huso huso is the largest and now the rarest species of sturgeon, growing on average to about 25 feet long. Huso huso lives in the Caspian and Black Seas and it is now unclear whether the species has gone extinct in the wild or not. When the International Union for Conservation of Nature (the IUCN) last surveyed the species in 2010, the population had decreased by 90% over the past sixty years and a number of the populations had gone extinct in the wild. Most if not all individuals are now bred and raised in hatcheries.
Closer to home (North America), sturgeon populate freshwater lakes, rivers, estuaries, and nearshore ocean habitats. In New York, Atlantic sturgeon are now listed as “near threatened,” meaning that though they are not critically endangered like the beluga sturgeon, they may soon be endangered. Acipenser oxyrinchus is a resident of the Hudson river, where the fish that grows to an average of 10 feet was formerly so common that its eggs were used as beer nuts and excess caught fish were burned and used as fuel on trains.
Though their eggs were once a cheap, salty snack, the expensive tastes of people around the world for caviar have left sturgeon in peril. Those tiny little eggs, which one may eat with a spoon made of bone, are eggs from one of my favorite species of fish, the sturgeon. The Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus, is long and flat with a protruding nose and bony plates lining its body. Dinosaur-like, it swims along the bottoms of rivers, lakes, and oceans searching for food. (The family containing the 27 species of sturgeon around today does actually date back to the Triassic period.)
Fish like the sturgeon are known as anadromous; they migrate up rivers from the ocean in order to spawn, like salmon do. New York’s important estuaries, ocean, and inland waterways are incredibly important for organisms like sturgeon. Large, ecologically important animals don’t just live out in the ocean, but can also live in large freshwater lakes and rivers. Because Atlantic sturgeon are residents of two different ecosystems, rivers and oceans, the health of both bodies of water are integral to the health of the sturgeon. Not only have these animals dealt with serious overfishing for caviar, but they are also often faced with polluted, poor quality water.
But Atlantic sturgeon are not extinct yet, nor are they even endangered. As the health of the Hudson and other inland waterways improve, the health of their residents, like our friendly neighborhood 10 foot long dinosaur fish, improves too.