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 Sturgeon Through History

Native Americans of North America fished for sturgeon using spears, lassos, clubs and weirs. Sturgeon are known to leap out of the water on occasion and would even sometimes jump right into their boats! They were known to be curious fish, so one fishing method used by the Housatonic Native Americans to catch sturgeon was fishing at night holding a torch above the water. The sturgeon were so curious that they would come right up to the surface of the water to check out the strange sight. When they came close enough, they would get bopped on the head with a club or an axe by the fisherman who would then drag the stunned fish into the boat. In addition, North American Native tribes named the full moon in August “Sturgeon Moon” because the fish was plentiful at that time

Sturgeon were found in great numbers when European settlers first arrived in North America. Some accounts recorded that there were so many sturgeon in the James River, you could walk across the river on their backs. In the late 1700’s George Washington made recreational sport of fishing for sturgeon on the Potomac River. They were very strong, large fish, so when fishermen would catch a sturgeon with a lasso, they would brace themselves in the boat for the sturgeon equivalent to a “Nantucket sleigh-ride.” However, it was not always fun and games with sturgeon on the Potomac. A sturgeon actually killed a Continental Army officer when he was crossing the Potomac as it jumped into his boat, landing on him and breaking his legs.

Sturgeon were considered to be a delicacy and a “royal” fish back in England. To be a “royal” fish meant that the king had first rights to any sturgeon that were caught. The colonists were suspicious of the Native Americans who consumed these scute armored fish, and regardless of their “royal” status in Europe, continued to refuse to eat the sturgeon. However, after harsh winters with little food, and so many of these large fish in great abundance, Captain John Smith convinced them to let go of their reservations and begin fishing for and making good use of sturgeon.

Sturgeon were used for many different purposes, not just food. The meat was high in protein and was prepared by a smoking or pickling process. This process allowed for the meat to be shipped and travel great distances without spoiling. The oil of the sturgeon was used as a substitute for sperm whale oil as it was less smoky flavored and did not spoil as quickly. Isinglass, made from the swim bladder of the sturgeon, was used as a binding agent for paint as well as an adhesive. The thick skin of the sturgeon was made into leather by a tanning process. And the roe or eggs of the sturgeon was prepared through a salting process to become caviar.

During the late 1800’s, the great “Caviar Rush” began. News of the abundance of sturgeon with caviar or “black gold” on the East Coast spread quickly. Many flocked to the coast in search of riches and this became known as the great “Caviar or Black Gold Rush.” By the end of the 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s, sturgeon stocks had declined drastically. Due to overfishing, close to seven million pounds of sturgeon were reportedly caught in 1887, by 1905 it had dropped to only 20,000 and by 1989 a mere 400 pounds of sturgeon were recorded. In a time span of only 100 years, catches of sturgeon went from tens of thousands of fish down to only a handful. 

Summary of Sturgeon in History