Implications for sturgeon populations in the United States

As populations of Caspian Sea sturgeon spiral downward, markets will likely turn to other sources of caviar, including North American sturgeon and paddlefish. During the 19th century, North America was an important source of sturgeon caviar, but overfishing and habitat loss caused many populations to decline. Of eight North American species of sturgeon and one species of paddlefish, five species or subspecies are listed as federally endangered (Gulf, pallid, shortnose, Kootenai River white, and Alabama) and possession of the severely depleted Atlantic sturgeon is prohibited. North American sturgeon caviar therefore has a very limited ability to replace Caspian Sea caviar in the marketplace.

American sturgeon and paddlefish populations are managed by individual states or by interstate commissions. With a few exceptions, commercial fisheries for North American sturgeon and paddlefish species are not managed and monitored according to appropriate scientific standards, so expansion of these fisheries leaves the species vulnerable to undetected overexploitation. Even where effective regulations are in place, state officials are concerned that increasing prices for American caviar may entice poachers to illegally harvest and sell caviar from American species.

U.S. Commercial Fisheries

Currently, there is commercial caviar production from three North American species: American paddlefish, shovelnose sturgeon, and white sturgeon.

Paddlefish are closely related to sturgeon, and just two species in this ancient family survive, one severely depleted population in China and one in North America. Also called "spoonbills," paddlefish live in freshwater and can grow to more than 5 feet in length and can weigh up to 150 pounds. They are named for the long paddle-like snout that is thought to help them detect changes in water flow and keep them afloat. Female paddlefish mature between the ages of 7-10, fairly early compared to other sturgeon, and produce an average of 7,500 eggs per pound of body weight. Paddlefish, like sturgeon, are more vulnerable to fishing mortality than are many other commercial and recreational fish because they live longer and mature later.

Dam construction and channelization of North American river systems have destroyed much of the paddlefish' spawning grounds, and pollution, illegal fishing, and overexploitation have exacerbated the decline of the species. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed paddlefish as "Vulnerable," and paddlefish was proposed for listing as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act in 1989.

Paddlefish live in 19 states along the Mississippi River and its tributaries and are subject to a diverse patchwork of management regimes. While several states have prohibited paddlefish fishing due to declining populations, others have management programs limited to seasonal or area restrictions, and still others have virtually no management. Inconsistencies in state management may be problematic for paddlefish and shovelnose sturgeon. A paddlefish, for instance, may travel hundreds of miles in its lifetime, crossing into the waters of neighboring states where it may or may not be protected. The Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Agency (MICRA) is conducting a tagging study to assess paddlefish, the first step toward establishing comprehensive, biologically-based quotas and other management measures.

Paddlefish caviar is marketed as "American caviar," "American premium black caviar," "Chattanooga Beluga," and, simply "American paddlefish caviar." In 1997, Indiana reported 73 pounds of paddlefish eggs from commercial fishing and Tennessee reported 141 pounds of paddlefish eggs. The joint venture programs run in Montana and North Dakota, discussed later in this report, produce about 3 tons of paddlefish roe per year.

Shovelnose sturgeon produce caviar that is marketed as "Hackleback caviar" and "American sturgeon black caviar." Shovelnose sturgeon is one of the smallest North American sturgeon and lives in 18 states in the Mississippi River drainage. Though the population is generally considered healthy, the species is protected or considered vulnerable in eight states where it occurs and has been extirpated from five others. Generally, state fishery managers report that shovelnose sturgeon populations are stable, but no status review has been compiled for this species in 10 years, and there is no comprehensive collection of harvest data over the range of the species. While no state that responded to a 1997 survey expressed a concern about shovelnose sturgeon poaching, expanding demand for hackleback caviar may lead to illegal fishing in states that prohibit commercial shovelnose fishing and overfishing in states that allow commercial fishing but do not track landings completely.

Commercial fishing for shovelnose sturgeon caviar is allowed in nine of the 18 states where shovelnose sturgeon live in the wild: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Landings and egg harvest are not completely tracked and reported. Illinois reported a total of 234 pounds of shovelnose sturgeon eggs in 1997.

Given the lack of robust scientific information about the status of shovelnose sturgeon across their range and market demand for hackleback caviar, more rigorous management and monitoring of commercial shovelnose fisheries is desperately needed. Initial efforts to get a clearer picture of population status and commercial landings should focus on the nine states that allow commercial fishing for shovelnose caviar.

Consumers should be aware that including Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and North Dakota have issued consumption advisories for paddlefish and/or sturgeon caught in certain water bodies. The chemicals of concern are PCBs, chlordane (a pesticide), and mercury.

White sturgeon are found in rivers and estuaries along the western coast of North America and Canada. The largest freshwater fish in North America, they regularly reach more than 10 feet in length. White sturgeon are farmed in California for caviar and meat; they are also fished recreationally in California, and commercially and recreationally in Oregon and Washington. White sturgeon spawn in three major river systems in North America (the Columbia-Snake, the Fraser (British Columbia), and the Sacramento-San Joaquin (California); the greatest abundance of white sturgeon is in the Columbia River Basin. The Columbia and Snake Rivers have both been dammed, costing the white sturgeon population there much of their spawning habitat, and populations are generally less healthy in impounded areas compared with those in the free flowing portions of these rivers. One population of white sturgeon, the Kootenai River population, is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Only small amounts of wild white sturgeon roe is available to consumers. Commercial sale of white sturgeon roe is permitted for a segment of the Columbia River commercial fishery, but the 60-inch maximum size limit in the fishery precludes any significant catch of mature fish.

White sturgeon are also poached for their increasingly valuable roe. In 1990, a caviar dealer and two others were convicted of violations of the Lacey Act for poaching approximately 2,000 adult white sturgeon from the Columbia River. They produced 3,307 pounds of caviar from the illegally captured fish which they testified to having sold as beluga and osetra caviar.

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