Caviar & Conservation - Christopher Dowell Photography

CAVIAR and CONSERVATION How a Delicacy Could Save a Species

-Christopher Dowell

     It was cold and wet my first day on the St James River, a wide and powerful, winding waterway that cuts through New Brunswick Canada. For all I knew and for all I’d read to prepare myself for this adventure, I would, this day, be coming face to face with a creature seldom seen….a creature who’d been obsessing over for that past year, possessing triangular dorsal fins, a billed nose and black/yellow, enigmatic eyes…an Atlantic sturgeon. I was pumped to see my first living wild sturgeon. I wasn’t the only one. An ambitious visiting chef from Vancouver stood next to me as we loaded onto a skiff aptly named “The Sturgeon Queen”. Billy, the skipper, and his son, Billy, Jr., gave us nods of welcome as they busied themselves in preparation for the morning’s activities. Once we sped off into the Rust colored water of the St. Johns River, the skiff, being empty, hit the waves hard and nearly knocked me off my seat. Just a bit upriver, we turned into shore, slowing down next to a buoy with a line of floating milk jugs that the net was attached to. The skipper pointed out that the 4th jug was missing. The excitement on his face told me to stand ready. It was sunken under water about three feet, he informed us. It was likely that a fish was down there. But I knew it wasn’t just any fish. It was a descendant of the prehistoric monster that swam in my constant daydreams.

     Billy, Jr. brought in the first buoy with a pole hook as he grabbed at the net pulling the skiff along with the top rope. Bill pulled the net up from the water. By the third buoy, the net grew heavy and at the fourth, we could see the big white belly of the sturgeon coming up through the copper-color river. Water splashed against the sides of the rocking skiff as father and son pulled up the massive, unworldly looking fish. As it nobly thrashed, it sent water in every direction then landed with a thud onto the deck of the skiff. This scene was repeated as two more sturgeons were plopped onto the floor of our now full boat.

     As I took in this sudden haul of sturgeon coming face to face with their almost human brooding eyes, it was hard not to think back to the origin of their species over 120 million years ago when they swam at the feet of Tyrannosaurus rex. They were an extremely resilient and downright tough fish. But as we follow them from their beginnings to the dawn of man and to now, we see this monster of a fish, a humble champion of a lost world, becoming easy prey. With our modern tools and relentless fishing, the sturgeon’s destiny is most certainly at a tipping point. Despite their looks, the sturgeon is calm, well-mannered and relatively poor swimmers. They’ve made easy prey in their long past and yielded a lot of food for little work. By the 1900’s the Atlantic sturgeon on the east coast of North American had dropped in numbers drastically. In 1887 seven million pounds had been caught and by 1900 that number dropped to only twenty thousand pounds. By 1989 only four hundred pounds were reported. It took only 100 years to reduce an ancient species to near extinction.

     The sturgeons’ roe (the mass of eggs found in its ovaries), or otherwise known as caviar, was known as black gold in the United States in those days. Interestingly, caviar was once viewed as peasant food and a lunch for the working man. In America, before the connection was made that caviar could be sold for a high price overseas, it was fed to the dogs and the pigs as offal scrap. Today the sturgeons’ history has been pushed aside and forgotten by the communities that were built by the caviar industry. And this is why I found myself standing in a skiff with long, full-bodied fish at my feet…to show what has been forgotten and to tell a story of conservation efforts…today Billy and Billy, Jr.’s efforts and their story. Once the net was emptied, father and son brought out a small, broken yellow toolbox, next to a notebook, then an ultrasonic tag checker, tags, and tape measures. Deftly and with great care and respect, together they ran the tag detector over the fish. If tag detected, they recorded data from this in their notebook. Then they measured, probed for eggs or gonads, then marked it to be released. Billy and Billy, Jr. work for Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar, a fishery that releases about 30% of their total catch. The data they collect goes directly into population research and to managing the fishery. They harvest a maximum quota of 350 fish each year; 175 males and 175 females…about 1.7 – 1.9% of the total river population These fishermen will release any immature females, spent females (those who have already made a spawning run) and any males under 4-5 feet. All are implanted with ultrasonic tags. In a nutshell, this is what is now happening to the sturgeon on the east coast of North America by Acadian Sturgeon and Caviar. This brief visual investigation into the life history of sturgeon, both biological and cultural, can be used as a cautionary tale for humanity as well as a hopeful example of what the future of sustainable fishing should look like.