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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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STURGEON. Sturgeon are known as the "royal fish" because since the time of King Edward II, the reigning King of England may claim any sturgeon caught. (1) Sturgeon are long-lived with lifespans in the wild of about thirty years and in human-care situations up to another twenty or thirty years. (2) A late maturing fish, sturgeon have reproductive cycles that include long migrations and require specific environmental conditions.

They are an ancient species that have survived for millions of years. but their future is threatened. Negative impacts of over-fishing, poaching, habitat destruction, and the construction of dams have altered or blocked their annual migration to ancestral spawning grounds. Some species of sturgeon are extinct while several are on the verge of extinction including the Chinese sturgeon, the highly prized beluga sturgeon, and the Alabama sturgeon. Many species are classified as threatened or endangered with noticeable declines in sturgeon populations as the demand for caviar has increased. Data indicates that over 85% of sturgeon species are at risk of extinction, making them more critically endangered than any other group of animal species. (3)

Before 1800, swim bladders of sturgeon (primarily Beluga sturgeon from Russia) were used as a source of isinglass, a form of collagen used historically for the clarification of wine and beer; as a predecessor for gelatin; and to preserve parchments. Several species of sturgeon have been harvested for their roe which is processed into caviar—a luxury food. Caviar-producing sturgeon are among the most valuable and endangered of all wildlife resources. (4)

During the 19th century, the United States was the global leader in caviar production with 90% of the world's trade. Atlantic sturgeon once thrived along the east coast from Canada to Florida. They were in such abundance in the Hudson River, they were called "Albany beef." (5)

Discussions of sturgeon often overlooked their role in COMMERCIAL FISHING on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. In 1895 the Dubuque Herald carried an article on sturgeon as a food. The article suggested that most people thought of it as a fish prepared by smoking. The idea of broiled sturgeon seemed humorous unless the reader happened to be a fisherman who recognized that this made a wonderful meal if the fish being prepared was small. A sturgeon weighing eight to ten pounds could be cut into steaks five to six inches back from the head. Even then, the flesh of the fish was oily and repeats on the meat platter were rare. Young sturgeon could also be fried, but a better choice was making a stew of the fish with onions. (6)

Sturgeon eggs became the focus of attention. In 1892 sturgeon eggs were sold for between $10 to $15 a keg. (7) Sturgeon eggs were given away at local bars as an accompaniment to 5¢ beer. (8) Within six years, the price had increased to $50 a keg according to the New York Sun. (9)

The cause of the price surge that continued for years was that the roe, the eggs of the Mississippi River sturgeon, was similar to the taste of sturgeon harvested in Russia on the Don and Dneiper rivers. What were called "fish eggs" by those who caught sturgeon in the Mississippi had become "Russian Caviare" by the time it was served in fashionable restaurants in New York. By 1910 the profits to be obtained from sturgeon roe changed a side-line of fisherman into a principal industry. A "roe can" became part of the fishing equipment on every boat. In 1911 it was estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of roe had been marketed on average by Mississippi fishermen. The total yield was believed to be above a quarter million pounds. One sturgeon caught by a McGregor fisherman weighed fifty pounds of which seventeen pounds were roe. The roe sold for $14.40 while the dressed fish brought $3.50. In the winter the price of roe increased to eighty cents per pound due to the labor of seining through the ice. (10)

See: Sturgeon of the Mississippi River Drainage. Online: https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-symantec-ext_onb&hsimp=yhs-ext_onb&hspart=symantec&p=sturgeon+on+the+mississippi+river+%28youtube%29#id=1&vid=0df8a0a880d1e2c4d35421cfe52c7dd8&action=click



1. "The Curious World," The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, July 22, 1934, p. 19

2. Hogstrom, Erik, "Snout Shape Gives Sturgeon Its Name," Telegraph Herald, July 31, 2022, p. 9A

3. "Sturgeon," Wikipedia. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. "Broiled Sturgeon," The Dubuque Herald, March 19, 1895, p. 7

7. "The Sturgeon Catch," The Dubuque Herald, December 30, 1897, p. 3

8. "Sturgeon..."

9. "The Sturgeon Catch..."

10. "Mississippi River Produces Caviar," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, March 3, 1912, p. 5