CIA's Atlantic Sturgeon

The CIA campus at Hyde Park overlooks the Hudson River, which has provided fish and shellfish harvests for thousands of years. A tidal estuary as far north as Troy, the Lower Hudson has a broad taxonomic diversity, including more than 200 species of fish. Most noted are the striped bass, bluefish, shad, flounder, eel, white perch, alewife, silverside, menhaden, hake, hogchoker, bay anchovy, lined seahorse, blue crab, Atlantic sturgeon and short nose sturgeon. Many of these species have historic culinary and current ecological significance, the Atlantic sturgeon being the most locally and regionally relevant. Hyde Park was a known spawning area for sturgeon, and had an important fishery landing in the 19th century. In the Hyde Park Post Office, an Olin Dows historical mural of the town includes fishermen netting a large Atlantic sturgeon near Hyde Park Landing.  The post office and artwork were part of FDR's New Deal, and he was present for the cornerstone dedication ceremony in 1940.

Acipenseriform fishes appeared in the fossil record approximately 200 million years ago, around the very end of the Triassic, making them among the most ancient of ray-finned fishes. In that time, sturgeons have undergone remarkably little morphological change, indicating their evolution has been exceptionally slow and earning them informal status as living fossils. They are anadromous bottom-feeders, spawning upstream and feeding in river deltas and estuaries. With their projecting, wedge-shaped snouts, they stir up the soft bottom, and use the barbels to detect shells, crustaceans and small fish, on which they feed. Having no teeth, they are unable to seize prey, though larger specimens can swallow very large prey items, including whole salmon. They are primarily cartilaginous, lack vertebral centra, and are partially covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales, lending to their pre-historic appearance, and giving them their nickname diamondsides.

Sturgeon live only in the Northern Hemisphere. There are 26 species commonly referred to as sturgeon and several closely related species that have distinct common names, including sterlet, kaluga and beluga.  Several species of sturgeons are harvested for their roe, which is made into caviar, making some sturgeons the most valuable of all harvested fish. Because they are slow-growing and mature very late in life, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and to other threats, including pollution and habitat fragmentation. Most species of sturgeons are currently considered to be at risk of extinction, making them more critically endangered than any other group of species. Five Atlantic sturgeon populations were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2012, and no commercial or sport fishing for Atlantic sturgeon is allowed in territorial waters of the US Atlantic Coast. In 2013 Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, countries that border the Caspian Sea, have banned the fishing of black-caviar-producing sturgeon in the region for at least one year.

The oldest sea-faring populations, Egyptians and Phoenicians, developed a taste for sturgeon, which they conserved in salt in order to eat it on their long journeys. Over 2500 years ago, coins struck in the port of Carthage bore the effigy of this famous fish. According to Aristotle, it boasted many medicinal virtues as well as other properties. Sturgeon have been referred to as the Leviathans of freshwater fish. They are among the largest fish, and some beluga in the Caspian Sea reportedly attain over 18 ft and 4,400 lbs. They are also among the longest lived of the fishes, some living well over 100 years and attaining sexual maturity at 20 years or more. Sturgeon are known for leaping, often times landing on unsuspecting victims, who have reported a wide array of injuries. Why sturgeon leap is one of the great mysteries of the fish world. The incongruity of sturgeon breaching was noted by one observer in 1731, who wrote '' May, June and July, the rivers abound with them, at which time it is surprising, though very common to see such large fish elated in the air, by their leaping some yards out of the water; this they do in an erect posture, and fall on their sides, which repeated percussions are loudly heard some miles distance....''  Some speculate sightings of sturgeon have given rise to such legends as the Loch Ness Monster, and Champ, of Lake Champlain.

Archaeological evidence indicates that prehistoric Native inhabitants relied on Atlantic sturgeon in their seasonal eating strategy. Atlantic sturgeon helped to save the starving colonists at Jamestown, who discovered that the giant fish were a reliable food source much of the year. Capt. John Smith wrote, "We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man." During colonial times, most people considered sturgeon a nuisance and trash fish. Certain accounts state that sturgeon were so plentiful they actually clogged rivers during their spawning runs. Large sturgeon that were caught accidentally by fishermen were either discarded, fed to pigs, used as fuel to power steamboats, or used for fertilizer. Hudson River sturgeon were so common that caviar was given away.

Beginning in the mid to late 1800s, North Americans became aware of the value of sturgeon. Europeans considered caviar a delicacy and so the demand for sturgeon exploded when preservation techniques for shipping were perfected. In addition to caviar, sturgeon were harvested for the delicious meat, the skin was tanned for leather, and the swim bladders were used for isinglass, a high quality gelatin used for pottery cement, waterproofing, and for clarifying wine and beer.  Atlantic sturgeon was so plentiful during its heyday in the 1800s, that catches were stacked like logs in New York's major fishing markets. A 19th century haute cuisine, its nickname, Albany beef, was due to the sturgeon's bright red colored flesh resembling premium quality beef. The white portions were also passed off as veal. In the last two centuries, the Atlantic sturgeon fisheries have experienced several booms and busts, largely a result of overfishing and environmental stresses.

In 1976 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation banned all fishing in the Upper Hudson due to health concerns with PCBs that were dumped in the Upper Hudson from 1947 to 1977.  In 1983, the United States Environmental Protection Agency declared a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to New York City, to be a Superfund site requiring cleanup. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation created the Hudson River Estuary Program, which protects and improves the natural and scenic Hudson River watershed, in 1987. The Hudson River Estuary logo depicts an Atlantic sturgeon, and appears on signs where major highways cross tributaries of the estuary. The first commitment of the Hudson River Estuary Action Plan calls for monitoring stocks of Atlantic sturgeon and other migratory fish in the river. 

©2023 John Sendelbach