Caviar and sturgeon, centuries-old symbols of Russia, were invariably present on the Russian monarchs’ menu since the times of Ivan the Terrible. In the 16th century, caviar made it to royal dinner tables in Europe after Pope Julius II found it delicious.
Today, sturgeon, the source of caviar, is on the brink of extinction. The sturgeon population in the Caspian Sea has shrunk by 40 times in the past 15 years. Extensive poaching has resulted in almost no sturgeon left in the Sea of Azov.
Echoing sturgeon concerns, the Moscow Zoo, where people come to marvel at rare animal species, has created a sturgeonarium showcasing nine species of the sturgeon. Small and large fish are kept separately – in glass aquariums and in large rectangular open-air pools. Here you can see the beluga, the largest species in the sturgeon family, weighing almost a ton and up to 4 meters long, and you can also see such rare species as the Sakhalin and Amur sturgeon, the kaluga, the thorn sturgeon, the sterlet or green sturgeon, and the famous Bester hybrid – a cross breed between the beluga and the sterlet, which was obtained in the former Soviet Union about 50 years ago.
The Moscow Zoo is planning to amass the fullest possible collection of all existing sturgeon species. It will also experiment in fish breeding with the aim of preserving and increasing the sturgeon population in Russia.
In the past, all the seas around Europe used to abound in sturgeon but now there are almost none left.
Russia is the world’s largest producer and exporter of sturgeon and caviar. But it is also the first country to have started breeding sturgeon in the end of the 19th century even though the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov were full of sturgeon fish, and so were Siberian rivers and Lake Baikal.
In the 20th century, the sturgeon population decreased dramatically after powerful hydro-electric power plants appeared on the Volga, Don and Kuban rivers. The dams barred fish from their traditional spawning sites. To repair the damage, special sturgeon-breeding plants using artificial spawning methods were built in the lower reaches of the rivers.
Sturgeon reproduction in the wild is a slow process. Sturgeon live up to 100 years and reach puberty by the age of 15-20 years. Reproduction does not take place every year. This unhurried routine coupled with other threats leaves sturgeon no chance.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 85% of sturgeon species are nearly extinct or listed among endangered species. In Russia, commercial fishing for rare sturgeon species is prohibited by law. More sturgeon-breeding centers are being created. A situation when sturgeon may be wiped out completely after inhabiting the seas for 250 million years must never arise.