Stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus)

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Stellate sturgeon head detail
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Stellate sturgeon fact file

Stellate sturgeon description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassActinopterygii
OrderAcipenseriformes
FamilyAcipenseridae
GenusAcipenser (1)

Belonging to an ancient group of fish, the prehistoric-looking stellate sturgeon (Acipenser stellatus) is notable for being one of the three main caviar producing sturgeon species (2). Reaching over two metres in length, the stellate sturgeon’s elongated body is armoured with rows of hard, spiky, white nodules, which brightly contrast with the blackish-grey upperparts. Like other sturgeons, the stellate sturgeon’s mouth is found on the underside of its head, with a cluster of short barbells located between the mouth and the tip of its long, pointed snout. The tail fin is uneven, with a small, short lower lobe and a much larger upper lobe extending upwards and away from the body (4).

Also known as
star sturgeon.
French
Esturgeon Étoilé.
Spanish
Esturión Estrellado.
Size
Length: up to 2.18 metres (2)
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Stellate sturgeon biology

Commonly found in coastal waters, the stellate sturgeon spends the day close to the seabed, where its downward-facing mouth helps it to feed on bottom-dwelling organisms, such as worms, molluscs and small fish (2) (4). At night, the stellate sturgeon becomes more active, rising up to the water surface to find other sources of prey (4).

In order to reproduce, the stellate sturgeon must undergo a migration from the sea into a freshwater river, swimming upstream to the spawning ground. Interestingly, there are two separate “races” of stellate sturgeon, which display different spawning behaviours. One race migrates and spawns during spring and summer, while the other migrates in the winter, over-winters in the river and spawns in the following spring (2). A single female produces a vast amount of eggs, in the order of hundreds of thousands, which stick to river vegetation and stones (6).

Generally, it is only the juvenile stellate sturgeons that are threatened by predation, as the large size and armour of the adults helps to deter predators (2) (6). Nevertheless, on occasion, the parasitic, eel-like lamprey has been known to cause fatal injuries to adult stellate sturgeons (6).

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Stellate sturgeon range

The stellate sturgeon inhabits the Black, Caspian and Azov Seas, and associated rivers and waterways such as the Danube (1) (2). Individuals have also been found in the Adriatic Sea, off the west coast of Italy, and in the Aegean Sea, around the coasts of Greece and Turkey (5)

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Stellate sturgeon habitat

The stellate sturgeon can tolerate a range of habitats, from the salty waters of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, to the freshwater conditions of the Danube (2) (5).

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Stellate sturgeon status

The stellate sturgeon is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Critically Endangered

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Stellate sturgeon threats

The major threat to the stellate sturgeon’s survival is overfishing for its meat and, more significantly for caviar, sold under the name “sevruga”. This is produced from the sturgeon’s unfertilised eggs and is almost always extracted by killing the female. The caviar industry is currently in crisis, as the dwindling stocks of the stellate sturgeon, and the other major caviar producing species, can no longer provide sufficient caviar to meet the huge worldwide demand (2). Despite attempts to manage stellate sturgeon stocks, illegal fishing and black market trade in caviar are threatening to drive this already endangered species to extinction (2) (7).

The threat of overexploitation for the caviar trade is also exacerbated by a reduction in the stellate sturgeon’s natural spawning grounds due to the construction of hydroelectric power stations and reservoirs, and also by the high levels of pollution found throughout its range (2).

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Stellate sturgeon conservation

In 1998, the stellate sturgeon was listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that all international trade in this species is controlled by maximum export quotas and trade permits (2) (3). The countries which are party to the CITES agreement must agree on sustainable catch and export quotas based on scientific surveys, and must adopt regional conservation strategies and attempt to combat illegal fishing. The strict enforcement of these regulations meant that in 2006, caviar export was banned for all of the countries bordering the Caspian Sea, since the countries failed to provide sufficient information about the sustainability of their catch. This promoted an agreement between the countries to reduce their stellate sturgeon caviar export quotas in 2007 by over 25 percent (8). The countries bordering the Black Sea have adopted an even stricter policy regarding their sturgeon stocks, maintaining a zero quota policy, which has continued into 2008 (9). Whether these reduced quotas will prove sufficient to allow the stellate sturgeon’s population to recover remains to be seen.

Due to limited natural spawning grounds, a high proportion of stellate sturgeon stock in the Caspian and Azov seas is maintained by farm-grown fish released into the wild. Unfortunately, however, poaching has reduced the numbers of adult stellate sturgeons so dramatically that hatcheries are struggling to obtain enough breeding fish to conduct artificial propagation (2). In an attempt to control the illegal trade in this species, in 2007 a world database for caviar trade was set up to monitor the origin of exported caviar and track shipments around the world (10).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about sturgeon conservation: 

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Barbells
Fleshy projections near the mouth of some fish.
Molluscs
A diverse group of invertebrates, mainly marine, that have one or all of the following; a horny, toothed ribbon in the mouth (the radula), a shell covering the upper surface of the body, and a mantle or mantle cavity with a type of gill. Includes snails, slugs, shellfish, octopuses and squid.
Spawning
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. CITES. (1997) Consideration of Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II, Proposal 10.65. Tenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Harare. Available at:
    http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/10/prop/index.shtml
  3. CITES (January, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. FishBase (January, 2009)
    http://www.fishbase.org/summary/speciessummary.php?id=2065
  5. Economidis, P.S., Koutrakis, E.T. and Bobori, D.C. (2000) Distribution and conservation of Acipenser sturio L., 1758 and related species in Greek waters. Boletín Instituto Español de Oceanografia, 16: 81 - 88.
  6. Campbell, A. and Dawes, J. (2004) Encyclopedia of Underwater Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Pikitch, E.K., Doukakis, P., Lauck, L., Chakrabarty, P. and Erickson, D.L. (2005) Status, trends and management of sturgeon and paddlefish fisheries. Fish and Fisheries, 6: 233 - 265.
  8. United Nations Environment Programme (January, 2009)
    http://www.unep.org/documents.multilingual/default.asp?documentid=498&articleid=5478&l=en
  9. CITES (January, 2009)
    http://www.cites.org/eng/news/press/2008/080303_caviar.shtml
  10. United Nations Environment Programme (January, 2009)
    http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=521&ArticleID=5713&l=en
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Image credit

Stellate sturgeon head detail  
Stellate sturgeon head detail

© Juan Manuel Borrero / naturepl.com

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