There are many kinds of sturgeon, they’re not all alike, and fishing for white sturgeon is okay but beluga fishing is not.
That’s my summary answer to a person who recently inquired “how come people are allowed to fish for sturgeon in Washington when they’re endangered?” But let’s explain this in more depth because it gets to some critical points about fisheries management and to the state of various fish species around the world.
There are more than two dozen species of sturgeon worldwide, many of which are endangered. All are found only in the Northern Hemisphere, throughout Eurasia and North America. Wherever found they have long been prized as food, and have especially been sought and commercially captured for their roe (eggs), which is considered the only true form of caviar.
Nine sturgeon species are native to North America, one of them being the white sturgeon, known scientifically as Acipenser transmontanus. Some of those nine species are listed as threatened or endangered in various locations — due to overfishing, habitat loss, and other environmental factors — and are protected from commercial and recreational fishing.
North America’s largest freshwater fish, the white sturgeon has been recorded to grow up to 1,500 pounds. It occurs in large Pacific Northwest rivers and is monitored and managed by the respective state fisheries agencies and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The latter agency maintains the U.S. Endangered Species list. White sturgeon in Washington, as well as Oregon and California, are not listed as either threatened or endangered. So regulated recreational fishing is permitted.
It’s a dire situation, however, for many of the Eurasian sturgeon species, especially beluga sturgeon, which is why there’s no beluga fishing (although illicit fishing and poaching are a great problem).
The beluga sturgeon, Huso huso, is one of the largest of all freshwater fish, reportedly growing to over 3,000 pounds. A 2,707-pound specimen was captured in the Ural River in 1924, and reportedly yielded 542 pounds of roe.
The beluga has been considered endangered for decades. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently designates beluga sturgeon as Critically Endangered, which is one step away from being listed as Extinct in the Wild. Thus, no legal beluga fishing.
Most past fishing for beluga has been of a commercial nature, since beluga caviar is one of the most desirable of the caviar types. The enormous value attached to this product, as well as that of other sturgeon from the region surrounding the Caspian, Red, and Adriatic Seas, has contributed to their continuing demise.
Worldwide, sturgeon species are certainly in trouble, and none are at the levels at which they existed in the past. In North America, some species, like Washington State’s white sturgeon, are faring well enough to sustain a recreational fishery. Make sure you have a fishing license before you go after them. Your license helps fund the management and protection of this and other species.