Historical Sturgeon Articles

Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition

published in twenty nine volumes, 1910 1911

STURGEON (Acipenser), the name given to a small group of fishes, of which some twenty different species are known, from European, Asiatic and North American rivers. The distinguishing characters of this group, as well as its position in the system, are dealt with in the article TELEOSTOMES. They pass a great part of the year in the sea, but periodically ascend large rivers, some in spring to deposit their spawn, others later in the season for some purpose unknown; only a few of the species are exclusively confined to fresh water. None occur in the tropics or in the southern hemisphere.

Sturgeons are found in the greatest abundance in the rivers of southern Russia, more than ten thousand fish being sometimes caught at a single fishing-station in the fortnight during which the up-stream migration lasts. They occur in less abundance in the fresh waters of North America, where the majority are caught in shallow portions of the shores of the great lakes. In Russia the fisheries are of immense value. Early in summer the fish migrate into the rivers or towards the shores of freshwater lakes in large shoals for breeding purposes. The ova are very small, and so numerous that one female has been calculated to produce about three millions in one season. The ova of some species have been observed to hatch within a very few days after exclusion. Probably the growth of the young is very rapid, but we do not know how long the fry remain in fresh water before their first migration to the sea. After they have attained maturity their growth appears to be much slower, although continuing for many years. Frederick the Great placed a number of them in the Gorland Lake in Pomerania about 1780; some of these were found to be still alive in 1866. Professor von Baer also states, as the result of direct observations made in Russia, that the Hausen (Acipenser huso) attains to an age of from 200 to 300 years. Sturgeons ranging from 8 to n ft. in length are by no means scarce, and some species grow to a much larger size.

Sturgeons are ground-feeders. With their projecting wedge-shaped snout they stir up the soft bottom, and by means of their sensitive barbels detect shells, crustaceans and small fishes, on which they feed. Being destitute of teeth, they are unable to seize larger prey.

In countries like England, where few sturgeons are caught, the fish is consumed fresh, the flesh being firmer than that of ordinary fishes, well flavoured, though somewhat oily. The sturgeon is included as a royal fish in an act of King Edward II., although it probably but rarely graces the royal table of the present period, or even that of the lord mayor of London, who can claim all sturgeons caught in the Thames above London Bridge. Where sturgeons are caught in large quantities, as on the rivers of southern Russia and on the great lakes of North America, their flesh is dried, smoked or salted. The ovaries, which are of large size, are prepared for caviare; for this purpose they are beaten with switches, and then pressed through sieves, leaving the membranous and fibrous tissues in the sieve, whilst the eggs are collected in a tub. The quantity of salt added to them before they are finally packed varies with the season, scarcely any being used at the beginning of winter. Finally, one of the best sorts of isinglass is manufactured from the air-bladder. After it has been carefully removed from the body, it is washed in hot water, and cut open in its whole length, to separate the inner membrane, which has a soft consistency, and contains 70% of glutin.

The twenty species of sturgeons (Acipenser) are nearly equally divided between the Old and New Worlds. The more important are the following:

1. The common sturgeon of Europe (Acipenser sturio) occurs on all the coasts of Europe, but is absent in the Black Sea. Almost all the British specimens of sturgeon belong to this species ; it crosses the Atlantic and is not rare on the coasts of North America. ' It reaches a large size (a length of 12 ft.), but is always caught singly or in pairs, so that it cannot be regarded as a fish of commercial importance. The form of its snout varies with age (as in the other species), being much more blunt and abbreviated in old than in young examples. There are 11-13 bony shields along the back and 29-31 along the side of the body.

2. Acipenser giildenstddtii is one of the most valuable species of the rivers of Russia, where it is known under the name " Ossetr "; it is said to inhabit the Siberian rivers also, and to range eastwards as far as Lake Baikal. It attains to the same large size as the com- mon sturgeon, and is so abundant in the rivers of the Black and Caspian seas that more than one-fourth of the caviare and isinglass manufactured in Russia is derived from this species.

3. Acipenser stellatus, the " Seuruga " of the Russians, occurs likewise in great abundance in the rivers of the Black Sea and of the Sea of Azoff. It has a remarkably long and pointed snout, like the sterlet, but simple barbels without fringes. Though growing only to about half the size of the preceding species, it is of no less value, its flesh being more highly esteemed, and its caviare and isinglass fetching a higher price. In 1850 it was reported that more than a million of this sturgeon are caught annually.

4. The sturgeon of the great lakes of North America, Acipenser rubicundus, with which, in the opinion of American ichthyologists, the sea-going sturgeon of the rivers of eastern North America, Acipenser maculosus, is identical, has of late years been made the object of a large and profitable industry at various places on Lakes Michigan and Erie; the flesh is smoked after being cut into strips and after a slight pickling in brine; the thin portions and offal are boiled down for oil; nearly all the caviare is shipped to Europe. One firm alone uses from ten to eighteen thousand sturgeons a year, averaging 50 ft each. The sturgeons of the lakes are unable to migrate to the sea, whilst those below the Falls of Niagara are great wanderers; and it is quite possible that a specimen of this species said to have been obtained from the Firth of Tay was really captured on the coast of Scotland.

5. Acipenser huso, the " Hausen " of Germany, is recognized by the absence of osseous scutes on the snout and by its flattened, tape-like barbels. It is one of the largest species, reaching the enormous length of 24 ft. and a weight of 2000 Ib. It inhabits the Caspian and Black seas, and the Sea of Azoff, whence in former years large shoals of the fish entered the large rivers of Russia and the Danube. But its numbers have been much thinned, and speci- mens of 1200 Ib in weight have now become scarce. Its flesh, caviare and air-bladder are of less value than those of the smaller kinds.

6. The sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) is one of the smaller species, which likewise inhabits both the Black and Caspian seas, and ascends rivers to a greater distance from the sea than any of the other sturgeons; thus, for instance, it is not uncommon in the Danube at Vienna, but specimens have been caught as high up as Ratisbon and Ulm. It is more abundant in the rivers of Russia, where it is held in high esteem on account of its excellent flesh, contributing also to the best kinds of caviare and isinglass. As early as the 1 8th century attempts were made to introduce this valuable fish into Prussia and Sweden, but without success. The sterlet is distinguished from the other European species by its long and narrow snout and fringed barbels. It rarely exceeds a length oi 3 ft.

The family Acipenseridae includes one other genus, Scaphirhynchus, the shovel-head or shovel-nosed sturgeon, distinguished by the long, broad and flat snout, the suppression of the spiracles, and the union of the longitudinal rows of scales posteriorly. All the species are confined ro fresh water. One of them is common in the Mississippi and other rivers of North America, the other three occur in the larger rivers of eastern Asia.

The American Cyclopaedia Vol11

by George Ripley And Charles A. Dana.
Published in 16 volumes, 1873

Sturgeon, the name of cartilaginous fishes of the class of ganoids and family sturionidae. The body is elongated and fusiform, covered with a rough skin protected by five longitudinal rows of tubercular plates; the largest of these rows is along the back, and there is also one on each side, and one from each pectoral to the ventral fins; the plates are flattened, and marked with radiating striae. The head is depressed, and ends in a long triangular snout covered with bony plates; mouth funnel-shaped and protrusible, on the under surface, without teeth, having in front a few depending barbels, evidently organs of touch; gill covers very large and gills free; pseudo-branchiae and spiracles are present, but no bran-chiostegal rays; fins well developed, the dorsal and anal opposite and behind the ventrals; tail heterocercal or unsymmetrical, the vertebral cord being prolonged into the upper lobe as in the sharks, and strengthened by fulcra along its upper margin; a soft caudal on the under surface of the tail. The vertebral column consists of an undivided soft chorda dorsalis; the air bladder is very large, communicating freely with the oesophagus; there is a spiral valve in the intestine, and a conglomerate pancreas.

They are generally large, and inhabit the northern temperate seas of both coasts of America, eastern Europe, and western Asia, from which they ascend the rivers in spring to spawn, returning to the salt water in autumn; species are also found in the great American fresh-water lakes, which never descend to the sea. They are oviparous; the food consists of any soft substances which they stir up from the bottom with their snouts, and of small fish; they frequently jump out of water. - The genus acipenser (Linn.) has the characters of the family. The common sturgeon of Europe (A. sturio, Linn.) attains a length of 6 to 10 ft., and sometimes more; it is found in the Caspian and Black seas and the rivers opening into them, and sometimes on the coasts of Great Britain and the Baltic; the flesh is delicate, and is largely consumed in Russia, fresh, salted, and pickled. A larger species, also found in the seas and rivers of S. E. Europe, is the beluga (A. huso, Linn.), attaining a length of 12 to 15 ft. and a weight of 1,200 lbs., and occasionally much larger; it ascends the rivers opening into the Caspian and Black seas, with other and smaller species.

The flesh is tough; the sound or air bladder furnishes an abundant supply of isinglass, for which great numbers are caught in Russia. Caviare is also made from the roe of the female, which sometimes constitutes one third of the weight of the fish; the skin is used for harness leather, and the dorsal cord, cut in pieces and dried, is used as food. The sterlet (A. Ruthenus, Linn.), found in the Caspian, and growing to a length of 2 or 3 ft., furnishes a most delicate food and the best caviare. In the Volga it spawns early in May, on rocky bottoms, in water of 54°F.; the eggs, which are easily fecundated artificially, soon adhere to any object; they are hatched in about seven days, the embryos being then about a quarter of an inch long; in ten weeks these attain a length of two inches, feeding on larva) of insects on the bottom. Both eggs and young will safely bear a journey of five days, and have been carried to W. Russia, and even to stock British rivers; the young live only in fresh water. The color in these species is brown of various shades, the plates whitish, and the abdomen silvery.

The several species in the Baltic hybridize freely, and are probaby only varieties of one. - In North America sturgeons are not found north of the watersheds between lat. 53°and 54°N., where the mean annual temperature is about 33°F.; they seldom enter clear cold streams, but ascend muddy rivers in such numbers that many largo Indian tribes subsist entirely on their flesh in summer; each watershed has its own species, varying in some minor characteristics. The sharp-nosed sturgeon (A. oxyrhynchus, Mitch.) attains a length of from 3 to 7 ft.; it is found on the coasts of New England, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; it is common in Long Island sound from the middle of June to October, and is taken by harpoon and in nets; the smaller specimens are esteemed for the table; it is grayish brown above, silvery on the sides, and white below. The short-nosed sturgeon (A. brevirostris, Mitch.) is dusky above and white below; the snout is short and blunt; it attains a length of 2 to 5 ft., and is so common in the Hudson that its flesh in the market has been known as Albany beef; it much resembles the A. sturio of Europe. Other species are described from the northern waters, the rivers of the N. W. coast, and from Lake Superior, by Richardson and Agassiz. - The genus polyodon (Lac6p.) or spatularia (Shaw) has the general form of acipenser, but is without the bony plates on the body and head; the snout is very much elongated, and compressed into a thin leaf-like organ, partly bony and partly cutaneous, sometimes nearly as long as the body; gill covers very large, extending far back in a membranous point; the mouth is wide, with numerous minute teeth in the young animal, which are lost with age.

The spoon-bill sturgeon (P. folium, Lacep.) is steel-blue above and white below; it attains a length of 5 ft., and is found in the Mississippi, Ohio, and their tributaries; it is also called shovel fish and paddle fish; the flesh is tough; the singularly shaped snout is used to shovel up the mud in search of food. The genus plati-rostra (Les.) is probably only the adult of polyodon, the principal difference being the absence of teeth.