The Dinosaur Fish

The dinosaurs may all be dead, but at least we still have the sturgeon. When it appeared during the age of the big dinosaurs 200 million years ago, it was covered with an armor of shiny interlocking scales. These are now gone, but in every other respect the fish is downright Jurassic. A bony plate covers its skull, and spikes run stegosaurus-like down its back. Instead of a spine, it has a flexible rod of cartilage. Its size--some species reach 2,500 pounds and 15 feet--makes it robust but also requires constant and efficient feeding. Four long whiskers--more like taste buds--probe the bottom muck for snails, crawfish, insect larvae and other morsels, and a snorkel-shaped mouth sucks them up. Evolution created 27 species of sturgeon, but none differs much from this basic model, exquisitely engineered for survival.

One evolutionary adaptation is looking unfortunate these days. Sturgeons are efficient procreators. A female can carry 5 million eggs, up to 20 percent of her body weight. This prodigious capacity for roe--better known as caviar--served the sturgeon well for millions of years, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has made the fish a prime target for poachers. In the last decade, illegal fishing has greatly depleted the stock of breeding-age, female Caspian Sea sturgeon, the world's last major population. Reflecting the shortage, the retail price of beluga caviar, the rarest of commercial species, has soared. Once served alongside beer in New York bars, it now goes for $140 an ounce. That puts the retail value of a single large female at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Already there are hardly any beluga sturgeon left in the Caspian to be fished. The situation has gotten so bad that the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has negotiated a ban on sturgeon fishing in the Caspian from July 20 to the end of the year, but even optimists expect only the briefest of reprieves for the embattled fish.

The problems started decades ago. The Soviet Union did combat poaching: in the 1960s Moscow banned sturgeon fishing in the Caspian and allowed harvesting only in rivers where the fish spawn. But pollution from the Soviet Union's rust belt drained down the Volga River into the Caspian, weakening the sturgeon. Stocks dropped from a peak of 144 million in 1976. By the time Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan became independent countries in 1991, stocks had fallen to 97 million.

Scientists will conduct a new sturgeon survey next year, but stocks are estimated to have dropped to 40 million fish. Poaching, poverty and the criminalization of the caviar business have pushed the estimated illegal catch to 12 times the legal harvest. Fishermen deploy wide-mesh nets off Azerbaijan and the semiautonomous Dagestan region of Russia. The sturgeon are defenseless. Like salmon, sturgeon return to their place of birth to spawn, two thirds of them to the Volga, where poachers set up nets in little coves along the river banks. Since the fish are all cartilage and no bone, they move slowly. They are so heavy they must keep swimming or sink. If a female doesn't find just the right quiet, upstream spot with a dark, muddy river bottom, she might decide to carry her load of roe around for a year more before spawning, giving poachers plenty of time to make the catch.

The sturgeon's long lifespan also adds to its vulnerability. The fish can live up to 100 years, and females don't mature in some species until they're 18. Roe-bearing females killed by poachers are not quickly replaced. "Ninety percent of young adults have been fished," says Raisa Khodorevskaya, a senior researcher the Caspian Fisheries Research Institute. "It's like after the second world war--there are plenty of young ones, but most of the adults are gone." Says veteran sturgeon specialist Sveta Bolshakova: "Now that most of the big ones are gone, the younger females are starting to reproduce before they are fully mature. Their offspring are going to be fewer and weaker."

Development has also harmed the sturgeon. The major rivers of the Caspian have been dammed, depriving the fish of spawning grounds. Russian hatcheries have tried to pick up the slack. In Ikryanoye (which means "caviar town" in Russian), a village beside the Volga, fish-hatchery manager Aleksandr Kitanov peers into a basin of clear water swarming with frenetic baby sturgeon. Kitanov, a blue-eyed Russian with a deep suntan, is determined to keep up with the poachers. "These fish are our insurance policy," he says. "Even if the poachers leave us nothing, we will restock the sea with these babies."

Kitanov produced his fingerlings from the eggs of a four-foot-long female raised at the hatchery. Russian ichthyologists (zoologists who study fish) performed a Caesarean section on the mother fish. In a few minutes they anesthetized the fish, opened its belly, removed the eggs, closed the wound and returned it to the pond. Kitanov's Caesarean method is one of several new ways of extracting roe that hatchery experts are promoting in the hopes of keeping the fish from being killed. Some specialists are experimenting with hanging a fish vertically and putting pressure on its abdomen, releasing the roe--not an easy task with such big fish. "It's not like salmon, where you can just use your two fingers to press it out," says Caroline Raymakers of the wildlife-trade-monitoring program Traffic. Whether legal fishermen, let alone poachers, could be persuaded to go to the trouble of such a method remains to be seen.

Legal exports of Caspian caviar have fallen from 2,000 tons in 1978 to 500 tons in 1991 to 160 tons so far this year. Already one species of Caspian sturgeon is gone, at least as far as commercial fishing is concerned. Worldwide, things are no better. Sturgeon no longer roam the rivers of Japan, Britain or France. In China, the Yangtze sturgeon and its cousin the Chinese paddlefish are on the verge of extinction. "When the Chinese finish their Three Gorges Dam, it will almost certainly wipe those two fish from the face of the earth," says Raymakers. All 27 species in the world, experts say, are declining.

Conservationists have no illusions that the Caspian fishing ban will solve the problem. All four former Soviet countries on the inland sea lack the political will to enforce the rules. In addition, much of the poaching is controlled by powerful criminal organizations that have a big stake in distributing caviar. CITES, which called for the ban, may ultimately have to resort to a more comprehensive boycott of caviar, similar to its successful moratorium on ivory in 1990. At best, the fight to save the sturgeon will take decades to win. The alternative is to lose a 200 million-year-old delicacy.

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