Sturgeon & Paddlefish Families
Sturgeon [order Acipenseriformes   -   family Acipenseridae (Sturgeon)   |   family Polyodontidae (Paddlefish)]

Sturgeon is an ancient fish, highly successful and little changed for something like 200 million years. The related Paddlefish is a little younger, having been around for only 100 million years (that we know of). Of the 25 living species of sturgeon, most are near to extinction due to the absurd prices show-offs and "gourmets" will pay for their eggs (caviar). This pricing encourages criminal activities, which are made worse by pollution and degradation of habitat. The Chinese Paddlefish is thought now extinct, but the American Paddlefish is still fairly common.

Pacific White Sturgeon and Lake Sturgeon are the only commercially important sturgeon not listed as "Threatened", "Endangered" or "Critically Endangered". The Pacific White is now heavily farmed in California for caviar and meat. The Lake Sturgeon are caught wild, mostly in Canada, though the fishery is now highly restricted. Together, sturgeon and paddlefish constitute the entire order Acipenseriformes.

Sturgeon are the largest fish found in fresh water, with the Russian Beluga (A. Huso huso) reaching 19 feet and and over 3400 pounds, while the more slender Pacific White Sturgeon (A. Acipenser transmontanus) reaches 20 feet and 1800 pounds. The specimen in the photo, smoked whole, was 27 inches long and 1.6 pounds. Sturgeon and Paddlefish are not kosher.

More on Varieties of Fish (very large page).

Pacific White Sturgeon   -   [California White Sturgeon; Acipenser transmontanus]
Live Fish

This is the third largest sturgeon in the world, growing to 20 feet and 1800 pounds. While considered LC (Least Concern) in the wild, it is heavily farmed in California for production of caviar, with meat as a byproduct. Experts say the quality of California caviar has improved to the point it is difficult to tell it from the Russian.   Details and Cooking

Lake Sturgeon   -   [Acipenser fulvescens]
Illustration of Fish

This fish was once extremely common in the lakes and rivers along the US / Canada border near the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Back in the days before "over regulation" about 4 million pounds a year were taken until around 1900 when the fishery collapsed due to no fish left. Today, taking this fish is highly restricted, though there is still a small commercial take allowed in the St Lawrence region of Canada. There is a restocking hatchery in Michigan serving mostly inland waters, but this fish is a long ways from recovering.   Illustration from Fishes of Illinois, copyright expired

Atlantic / Gulf Sturgeon   -   [Atlantic; Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus   |   Gulf; Acipenser oxyrhynchus desotoi] Live Fish

This North American Sturgeon was where Europe got its caviar until the beginning of the 20th century. The United States and Canada were not yet "over regulated" and the sturgeon were overfished, causing Europe to turn to the East for caviar. The Atlantic sturgeon ranged from New Brunswick, Canada to the east coast of Florida, but is now extinct in some of its range and threatened elsewhere, but is still sufficiently populous to be IUCN rated NT (Not Threatened). The essentially identical Gulf sturgeon ranges from eastern Louisiana to the west coast of Florida and is IUCN rated VU (Vulnerable). These sturgeons can grow to 15 feet and 800 pounds. They are not currently harvested for caviar.

Efforts are under way to restock the Baltic Sea region, currently devoid of sturgeon, with Atlantic sturgeon. It was recently found that the sturgeon that formerly lived there were Atlantics, not a European variety.   Drawing by U.S. Fish and Game Department = public domain.

Sterlet   -   [Acipenser ruthenus]
Live Fish

This relatively small sturgeon is native to the large rivers that flow into the Black Sea, Asov Sea and Caspian Sea, and north flowing rivers in Siberia as far east as Mongolia. It is considered vulnerable because of overfishing for meat, caviar and isinglass throughout its range, but restocking efforts are ongoing and significant aquaculture has been established. It is very much liked for food in Russia and Hungary.   Photo by Karelj contributed to the Public Domain .

Huso Sturgeon   -   [Beluga; Huso huso   |   Kaluga; Huso dauricus] Live Fish

These related Sturgeons are the largest in the world, and unlike most others are not bottom feeders but aggressive predators of other fish. The Kaluga, which lives in the Amir river which separates Russia from China, grows to nearly 19 feet and 2200 pounds. The Beluga, inhabiting the Caspian and Black Sea, can grow to 24 feet and 3400 pounds. Both these fish are IUCN listed as CR (Critically Endangered) due to intensive overfishing for their high value caviar. Trade in their caviar is controlled mainly by Russia's murderous organized crime syndicates. For these reasons, Beluga and Kaluga should not be purchased or consumed.   Photo of Kaluga Sturgeon by Javontaevious distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Sturgeon Caviar
Bowl of Caviar These are the eggs of a mature sturgeon. Caviar is not simply harvested from the fish and sold. It is carefully graded, lightly salted and aged for two to three months under tightly controlled conditions, then carefully packed for shipment and sale. This processing has a definite effect on the quality of the product.

The largest caviar wholesaler, the French company of Petrossian, has declared the age of wild harvested caviar essentially over - victim of overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. From here on out it will be from farmed fish. California sturgeon farms produces between 70% and 80% of all caviar harvested in North America, and it is increasingly shipped worldwide. Petrossian has declared California caviar to be be approaching the quality of the best Russian products.

Other than California's Pacific White Sturgeon, the most commonly farmed in most of the world is the Siberian sturgeon, Acipenser baerii, which is quite tolerant of farming conditions. The leading producer for caviar is France, and for meat, Russia.   Photo of Beluga Caviar by Thor distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Gerneric.

Just for historic interest (since you can't afford them), here are the traditional top Russian wild harvested caviars.

Swim Bladder Isinglass is a substance originally made from the swim bladder of a sturgeon, though some is now also made from cod. It is important for "fining" (making clear) certain types of beer, a process that makes those particular beers unsuitable for vegans (there may be traces of isinglass left in the beer). It is also a very important adhesive for restoration of ancient parchment documents and other conservation tasks. The photo is not a sturgeon swim bladder as no photo of one was available.   Photo by Uwe Gille distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Paddlefish   -   [Spoonbill; Polyodon spathula (American)   |   Psephurus gladius (Chinese)]
Painting of Live Fish

American paddlefish are native to the Mississippi drainage basin and can grow to over 7 feet and 200 pounds. They have recently been found in the Danube, probably escaped from fish farms during floods, and have been seen in restaurant holding tanks in southern China. Chinese paddlefish were native to rivers in northern China and grew to nearly 10 feet and 660 pounds. They are now though extinct due to dam building, pollution and over harvesting. The American paddlefish is IUCN rated VU (Vulnerable) but are still allowed as a sports fish in many locations.

Unlike sturgeon, paddlefish are filter feeders, living on plankton. They are now extinct in Lake Erie and its drainages and cannot be restored there because of the invasive zebra mussels. These are also filter feeders and keep the water too cleaned of plankton for paddlefish to have enough to eat. Unfortunately the equally invasive round gobies aren't eating enough zebra mussels to clear them out.

Paddlefish are related to Sturgeon, and like sturgeon produce valuable caviar and desirable meat. This has traditionally been harvested from wild caught fish, but the success of California sturgeon farms has encouraged aquaculture development for both caviar and meat.   Illustration by U.S. Fish and Game Department = public domain.

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