Ellen K. Pikitch is executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University.
The sea's most valuable fish, the sturgeon - prized for its caviar - now also holds the record as its most endangered. In fact, sturgeon are in worse shape than any other fish, mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian or plant. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, 17 of the 27 species of sturgeon and their close relatives, paddlefishes, are now classified as "critically endangered" - just one small step away from extinction. But our largest and most valuable local sturgeon species - the Atlantic sturgeon - is not listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Sturgeon possess a suite of life history attributes that places them in danger at nearly every turn. After spending most of their lives at sea, adults make often lengthy migrations up rivers to reproduce. Much of their former spawning areas have been lost to dams, habitat alteration and pollution.
It is also in the rivers that these fish face their chief predator: humans. Traveling in densely populated groups during their journey upstream, sturgeon fall easy prey to nets set in close succession, each of which can stretch across an entire river width. Few adult fish make it past this gantlet to reproduce. And the few young generated by those adults face a treacherous passage back out to sea, followed by an average of 15 years before they themselves are mature enough to reproduce.
Sturgeon are distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, and two species, the Atlantic sturgeon and the shortnose sturgeon, reside in New York's aquatic backyard. Both were greatly depleted by habitat loss, pollution, and direct and indirect effects of fisheries. The shortnose was listed as endangered in 1967 and is now beginning to show signs of recovery. The Atlantic sturgeon - much more valued for its caviar and meat, and greatly depleted for more than a century - has been subject to a moratorium on fishing since 1998, and is being considered for listing as threatened or endangered.
After virtually fishing out these two species native to New York and several other North American sturgeon, the U.S. market looked farther and farther east to quench the voracious American appetite for sturgeon meat and caviar. Much of the supply was provided by the Caspian Sea countries. The United States and other importing nations offered extraordinarily high prices to a region suffering from economic distress. This lucrative market, combined with the lack of coordinated fishery management regimes in the aftermath of the breakup of the former Soviet Union, resulted in escalating legal and illegal fishing. The result, of course, was steadily diminished beluga and other native sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea.
The Caspian Sea region has since become a focal point for conservation, but, recovery efforts emphasize producing sturgeon through fish hatcheries rather than saving the existing adult sturgeon by ending fishing. But saving one adult fish is 10 times more effective than introducing one hatchery-reared juvenile. And protective measures - whether in the Caspian Sea, Atlantic Ocean or elsewhere - have not been extensive or consistent enough to stop the wholesale decline of sturgeon.
An international trade ban and a prohibition of all sturgeon fishing should be enacted - no exemptions, no tolerance for violators. And in the United States, the Atlantic sturgeon should be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Extending this protection to Atlantic sturgeon could boost the species' chances for recovery by restoring essential habitat, minimizing incidental take and continuing prohibition of directed fishing.
Will these measures save the sturgeon? There are no guarantees, but a "don't fish, don't trade" policy would give the species a fighting chance. Anything less would be tantamount to writing a death sentence for the most valuable fish on Earth.