Shared by Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the Snake River weaves its way through the walls of Hells Canyon, rising a mile and a half above sea level — a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon.
In the Snake’s dark cold waters lurk giant fish whose ancestors, scientists say go back 120 million years to the Triassic period when early dinosaurs roamed this same region.
They are the white sturgeon, North America’s largest freshwater fish — called Gators, Diamond Sides or Old Bucket Mouth by sports fishermen.
Without scales, the boney-plated prehistoric fish with the scientific name of “Acipenser transmontanus,” is one of 27 species of sturgeon existing worldwide today.
Sturgeons have characteristic barbel whiskers on their snout, an extendable mouth and a shark-like tail. Rows of sharp diamond-shaped bony projections called scutes run lengthwise along their exterior, but their skeleton is mainly cartilage — like sharks.
It may have been those protective scutes that helped sturgeons survive since prehistoric times — when dinosaurs didn’t.
In Triassic times, sturgeons swam in Idaho waterways, and small dinosaurs roamed the land — the biggest probably the two-legged carnivorous coelophysis, only about 10 feet long from nose-to-tip of the tail, feeding on small early mammals.
Monster dinos like the ferocious meat-eating T. rex and the even larger Spinosaurus carnivore, 60 feet long came later, but none wandered further west than Montana and Wyoming.
The biggest dinosaurs of those times were the long-necked Titanosaur group that included the 120-foot long Patagotitan, a reptile that along with many others became extinct while the sturgeon survived. So far the only Patagotitan fossil found in the U.S. was in New Mexico.
Several prehistoric time periods ended with a mass extinction, due to some undetermined catastrophic events.
Scientists theorize that those events might have been caused by volcanic activity, floods, drop in oxygen levels, rise in methane gas, or Earth being hit by an asteroid — or maybe something else.
They say that the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago, but the sturgeons, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, sharks, turtles and others survived into modern times.
Another survivor is the Coelacanth, a prehistoric fish found today in deep waters off the south and east coasts of Africa, as well as in Indonesia.
The Coelacanth grows to more than 6 feet in length, weighing 200 pounds, and was around in the same prehistoric times as the sturgeon.
The first Coelacanth was caught by Captain Hendrick Goosen fishing off the coast of South Africa in 1938 and later given the scientific name “Latimeria Chalumnae,” named after museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer.
Descendants of the prehistoric white sturgeon are found in Idaho’s Snake River up to Shoshone Falls, the lower Salmon and Kootenai River. They can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and live more than 100 years.
Living primarily on the bottom, the sturgeon’s torpedo-shaped bodies enable them to swim in swift river currents. Their small eyes are adapted for seeing in dark places, and sensitive barbel whiskers help them identify food — mainly salmon, steelhead, pacific lamprey and freshwater mussels.
Their life cycle is similar to the salmon — anadromous. They hatch in freshwater rivers, and then spend most of their adult life in saltwater seas before returning each year to spawn upriver.
White sturgeons are found from Alaska to California (see map).
The Kootenai River also has a distinct White Sturgeon population that is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Though in Idaho, sturgeons are protected by catch-and-release Fish and Game laws, they still face serious danger from over-fishing, poaching, pollution, mishandling while catch-and-releasing, and changes to their natural habitat — such as dams.
The warnings are the same everywhere — “Sturgeons worldwide are threatened due to reduced habitat and overfishing.” Since 1998, all sturgeons have been listed as endangered under the Conservation of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) treaty signed by 183 nations.
While most accounts agree on the ancient ancestry of the sturgeons, not all agree on the details.
Paleontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman zeroes in on one particular species — the Pallid Sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus), meaning “spade-snouted” and “white,” saying it emerged later than the Triassic Period when white sturgeon first appeared.
“We have very good evidence that this sturgeon lived during the Cretaceous period at the same time as the dinosaurs,” he claims. “When sturgeons were swimming through the waters, there were Tyrannosaurus rexes walking in Montana. If we look at the ecosystem, basically what we see is a situation very similar to what we see in the lower Mississippi with sturgeon, garfish, turtles, crocodilians and alligators running around on the banks of the rivers, between rivers.
“We’d see Tyrannosaurs, duck billed dinosaurs, armored dinosaurs, horned dinosaurs and the vegetation at that time in Montana was pretty much the same as it is in Louisiana today.”
He says the museum in Bozeman is exhibiting a sturgeon specimen from the Cretaceous period when T. rex and Hadrosaurs and Ceretopsians lived.
“This sturgeon fossil is the most complete fossil we have anywhere in the world, he says, “and it came from the Judith River formation here in Montana.”
Meanwhile, today on the other side of the world, the giant beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, Black Sea and occasionally the Adriatic is in grave danger of extinction. Fishermen can’t resist the profits from harvesting the tasty caviar (roe) that they produce.
Beluga caviar varies in color from purple to black — with the lighter color fetching the highest price of up to $142 per ounce and making it the most expensive food in the world.
The beluga sturgeon may be the largest freshwater fish in the world, though some say it’s the Mekong River catfish in Thailand.
Female belugas are larger than males. The largest female beluga ever caught was in 1827 in Russia’s Volga estuary. It was 23 feet 6 inches long and weighed 3,463 pounds. They are believed to live as long as 118 years. Belugas are so big that though they feed mostly on fish, they sometimes also eat waterfowl and seal pups.
A report by The Guardian says, “The beluga sturgeon has been overfished for its eggs for more than 20 years, resulting in a dramatic 90 percent decline in its population.”
Conservationists petitioned the U.S. government to list the beluga as an endangered species and put pressure on Caspian nations to protect the beluga and also to create a recovery plan — or else face a ban.
Iran and four other Caspian nations were given six months to comply, but they didn’t. That triggered a U.S. ban on importing beluga caviar.
“Time is running out for the sturgeon,” The Guardian warned. “Caspian nations must commit to a recovery plan for beluga sturgeon.”
The World Wildlife Federation is also fighting to stop the over-fishing and poaching, restore life-cycle habitats, and encourage conservation stocking.
Closer to home, Native Americans too are worried about the future of the sturgeon.
A Nez Perce Tribe-sponsored study blames the Columbia River Basin hydroelectric system for sturgeon woes for having “created impoundments throughout the basin, degraded or destroyed white sturgeon spawning and rearing habitat, severely restricted movements of white sturgeon and their principal food resources.”
The tribal study claims there were more sturgeon before the hydro-system, predicting that “Populations may face extinction in some upper Columbia River Basin segments, including portions of the Snake River Basin, where cumulative impacts due to dam blockage and impoundment are particularly acute.”
Installing fish ladders may work for salmon, but not for sturgeon.
Another major threat are sea lions and seals that feast on salmon and other fish — including sturgeon.
Dr. Deward E. Walker Jr. says in a study, “Steller sea lions have discovered the ‘all-you-can-eat banquet’ of thousands of white sturgeon that have recently begun overwintering below the (Bonneville) dam.”
Three miles west of Bonners Ferry, the Kootenai Tribe operates a hatchery for white sturgeon and rainbow trout, and the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has published a manual for operating white sturgeon hatcheries.
Sturgeons have survived the volcanos, meteors, dinosaurs and whatever other natural threats faced them, yet they still swim in Europe, Hells Canyon’s Snake and other Idaho waterways — but it may be up to man to save them for the future.
We can eat less caviar.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Bigger than Idaho’s sturgeon…
The largest sturgeon in the world is the Beluga found mostly in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, living for up to 100 years and growing as long as 24 feet and weighing more than 3,500 pounds. Like salmon, they hatch in fresh water rivers, swim to saltwater seas as adults, and return each year to spawn upriver.
There are also sturgeons in many lakes and can live up to 150 years. Those sturgeons are benthivores — feeding on small invertebrates such as insect larvae, crayfish, snails, clams and leeches.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game reports that in some sections of the Snake River, white sturgeon “face an uncertain future because the habitat and river flows they need to reproduce have significantly changed as the river has been developed.” The Snake is one of America’s rivers with the most dams.
Beluga caviar (roe) is the most expensive food item in the world, costing up to $5,000 per kilogram, or $142 per ounce. The color varies from purple to black — with the palest being the most expensive. One report says, “Beluga caviar is generally served on its own on small pieces of toast as it needs no additions of flavour to improve it. If you have not experienced eating caviar, when you bite down each egg pops and releases a slightly salty-fishy flavour.”
Other big freshwater fish…
Thailand boasts having the world’s largest freshwater fish — the Mekong River catfish and stingray. A monster catfish weighing 646 pounds was caught in 2005, and American TV wildlife conservation host Jeff Corwin caught a 14-foot stingray weighing 800 pounds in the Mekong in 2010.
After the white sturgeon, the next largest freshwater fish in America is the alligator gar that may grow up to 10 feet.
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