Sturgeon Scarcity Affects More Than Caviar

Sturgeon have been swimming around for more than 200 million years, but their eggs are sought after for caviar. This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service placed the Atlantic sturgeon on its endangered species list. Guest host David Greene speaks with Dr. Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, now on to some slightly warmer waters. Sturgeon have been swimming around for more than 200 million years. But their eggs have long been sought after and for caviar and they've been overfished. This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service placed the Atlantic sturgeon on its Endangered Species List, and the ruling has implications that go far beyond the caviar industry.

Professor Ellen Pikitch runs the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, and she's an expert on all things sturgeon. And she joins us from our in New York Bureau.

Professor, thank you for joining us.

PROFESSOR ELLEN PIKITCH: It's my pleasure to be here.

GREENE: Give us a sturgeon primer. I mean, where do you sturgeon fit into the fish family? What do they look like?

PIKITCH: They've been on Earth before the dinosaurs. They kind of look ancient, they have long snouts. Sturgeon are unusual fish in that they have to go up into fresh water, into rivers, to spawn. And along the Atlantic Coast some of the major spawning rivers include the Hudson River, the Delaware River. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, so they're subject to threats not just in the rivers in which they spawn but all along the Atlantic Coast.

GREENE: Well, tell us what this ruling means. I mean, as I understand it, Atlantic sturgeon, it's been illegal in the U.S. to fish for them to get caviar for some time. So why this ruling now from the National Marine Fisheries, and what are the implications?

PIKITCH: Well, Atlantic sturgeon were overfished more than a century ago. And their numbers are about an order of magnitude lower than they were about 100 years ago. In about 1990, there was a ruling that established a moratorium on fishing for a sturgeon, and yet there just hasn't been the kind of comeback that one would hope to see for this fish.

GREENE: So, we go from a restriction on fishing to now endangered species. That takes it up a notch in the way.

PIKITCH: It takes up a big notch because now it's not only fishing activities, it can affect navigation, dredging. It could impact other fisheries that fish for other species. Without any intention to catch sturgeon, other fisheries sometimes incidentally do catch them. Then those fish die.

GREENE: I know a lot of our listeners who like caviar wonder what might this might mean, even though it's, you know, Atlantic sturgeon haven't - you can't fish for them for the last 20 years. I mean it's - do you eat caviar? Are you worried about this? Are there other places to get caviar?

PIKITCH: You know, in my opinion there are no wild populations of sturgeon where it would be a good idea to get caviar from. All the species of sturgeon are in trouble. I do eat caviar. I'm one of the caviar lovers. But when I do eat caviar, I choose to eat farm-raised caviar and only from farms that practice really good environmentally-friendly practices.

GREENE: Professor Ellen Pikitch runs the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, and she was speaking to us from our bureau in New York.

Thanks very much, Professor.

PIKITCH: Thank you very much, David.

GREENE: This is NPR news.

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