Can You Eat Sturgeon? (And Why You May Not Want To)

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Can You Eat Sturgeon? (And Why You May Not Want To…)

can you eat sturgeon
Sturgeon are massive, prehistoric gentle giants that help control aquatic invertebrate populations and serve as indicators of water quality. Photo by Travis Wiens / CC BY-NC 2.0

You have likely heard of sturgeon, but many people do not realize just how rare and historically important they are! The 27 species of sturgeon are considered living fossils due to their long history. The earliest sturgeon fossils ever found date back to the Late Cretaceous period, making this family of fish hundreds of millions of years old!

To this day, these fish have held on to some interesting primitive features: they have rows of special bony plates called scutes instead of scales, and have special sensory organs called barbels near their mouths to help them locate the snails, clams, crayfish, and leeches that they eat.

Sturgeon are quite long-lived, and some have even been known to reach 150 years of age! These fish take a long time to mature, and typically do not produce any young until they reach 15-20 years of age. Sturgeon grow slowly, but can eventually reach impressive sizes, and are often referenced as being among the largest fish species! Sturgeon size depends on specific species—the beluga sturgeon is the largest and can grow as large as 24 feet and 3,500 pounds. Sterlets are usually considered to be the smallest sturgeon species, and even they grow to an average of three feet (one meter) in length.

Unfortunately, sturgeon have suffered from over-exploitation by humans. Researchers say that sturgeon are now more critically endangered than any other species group in the world. A big reason for this overexploitation is that many species of sturgeon are prized for their roe, which is used for caviar. Due to their late age of maturity, and the fact that they do not usually spawn every year, sturgeon populations have a difficult time bouncing back after overfishing. Sturgeon are very sensitive to poor water quality, and as such are very valuable bioindicators of water quality and health. 

A History of Sturgeon in Culture & Cuisine

history of sturgeon
Native Americans greatly revered sturgeon, and only those with very special permissions could hunt them. Photo by Jiaqian AirplaneFan, CC BY 3.0

Indigenous people in North America often used sturgeon as a food source, and many had specific rituals related to the fish. Due to their large size, one sturgeon could feed many people. Some tribes held ceremonies to honor the sturgeon, while others led ceremonies to summon them, or required newcomers to get special permission to hunt them.

In general, the entire sturgeon is not commercially used as a food source, though some may use the meat for steaks. Instead, sturgeon have been especially popular for their roe, which is used to make caviar. This luxury food led to a huge market for sturgeon, especially in the United States, Canada, and Russia. Eventually, commercial overharvesting and habitat loss led to a massive reduction in sturgeon numbers, and all international trade of sturgeons was put under regulations. Even so, poachers continue to illegally smuggle sturgeon caviar.

Many people keep sturgeon as prized inhabitants of their ponds. As long as you can provide enough space for these massive fish, which can be hard to accomplish, sturgeon can live happily as pets. In general, smaller species of sturgeon, like the sterlet, are much more suitable for pond living than their larger relatives.

There has been a widespread effort in recent years to save sturgeon populations. These fish are fascinating for so many reasons, and their disappearance would be a huge loss. WWF has a sturgeon initiative, which involves fighting the black market, engaging local fishing communities, protecting and restoring habitat, and stopping illegal fishing. These efforts will hopefully help to preserve this unique species group.

Why You May Want to Eat Sturgeon

1900 New York menu featuring sturgeon
This menu from a New York restaurant in 1900 showcases that sturgeon was once a popular food choice, leading to their near-extinction. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library

After reading all this talk of how prized sturgeon are as food, you may be considering whether you would like to taste it for yourself! As mentioned before, sturgeon do have a history of being hunted to be used as food. However, due to overexploitation, sturgeon are both more difficult to find, and less socially acceptable to eat than ever before. That being said, sturgeon meat can still be found on some menus.

One reason you might be interested in tasting sturgeon is that these fish are especially famous for their roe, which is used to make caviar. Although sturgeon caviar was once found readily (provided you had the funds!), it is somewhat more difficult to find today. In North America, the focus has shifted from using sturgeon as a food source to protecting them in order to prevent extinction.

Caviar is produced by salt-curing roe. Traditionally, only sturgeon caviar was considered to be “true” caviar, but this definition has expanded (depending on where you are in the world) to include many species, including salmon, trout, whitefish, and carp. If you don’t want to contribute to harming any sturgeon, trying caviar from one of these other species could be a good option. Additionally, farmed or “sustainable” caviar is also an option, and doesn’t involve depleting wild populations of sturgeon.

Why You May NOT Want to Eat Sturgeon

Two white sturgeon swimming in the Columbia River
Sturgeon are incredibly intelligent, and serve many critical ecosystem services. Photo by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Sturgeon are living fossils, and face a significant risk of extinction. These fish are an amazing snapshot of Earth’s history, and it is important that humans allow their populations to persist in the wild. In recent years, an international research team even showed that Atlantic sturgeon can show complex learning behaviors.

While you may be curious to taste caviar, there are alternatives that do not harm this iconic species group. Wild sturgeon are killed for their caviar, while “sustainable” farms make an incision in the sturgeon’s belly before removing the roe. This incision is then sealed up, and is not considered overly ethical. Other fish, such as salmon and trout, can be “milked,” meaning that they can be gently massaged in order to harvest their roe. This option is much less invasive and does not harm the fish. These kinds of roe can still be salt brined and turned into caviar, and as such are a kinder option if you do decide you want to eat this dish. If you’re set on sturgeon caviar, be sure to seek out suppliers that utilize this “milking” method – it’s not as common with sturgeon, but it can be, and is, done

In addition, sturgeon take decades to reach their full sizes, so it does not make much sense to cook one up instead of a tastier, less expensive, and non-endangered option at your local grocery store or fishing hole!

If you are fortunate enough to have the space and resources to house a sturgeon in your pond, this pet can add significant value to your life as a living being, much more than it could as a single meal. Sturgeon can live long lives, sometimes even outliving their owners! Sitting at a pond’s edge and watching a sturgeon live its life, using amazing prehistoric traits to smell and swim, can be a wonderful experience.

Koi are also very expensive for their ornamental and spiritual value, and as such are not typically thought of as a “delicacy.” They feed on a wide variety of foods, and tend to be rough in texture when cooked and oily or muddy in taste. It would not be a very good use of your time (or your pet’s life!) to spend time cooking it up for dinner, when there are much tastier and healthier options at your local grocery store or waiting to be hooked in your favorite local fishing hole.

Live & Let Live (To Eat Or Not to Eat?)

While in the end it comes down to personal opinion, sturgeon provide more value to the world as living animals than they do as a meal. As pets, sturgeon can provide you with relaxation and joy for decades. You can bond with them as you would with any other type of pet, and benefit from this relationship for many years.

Spotting a sturgeon in the wild is also an amazing experience, and one that can only happen if they are saved from extinction! These prehistoric giants are a fascinating element of the Earth’s living history and are worth protecting.

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