Sturgeon along riverbank
Credit: Eric Engbretson/USFWS

Sturgeons predate many fish species, appearing in the fossil record approximately 200 million years ago. There are 26 species of sturgeon and paddlefish in the Acipenseriformes group and many of these species are harvested as food. Living in a range of habitats, from subtropical to subarctic waters, sturgeons are found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. They are bottom-feeders, eating small fish and invertebrates they find from sifting through silt or sand on the bottom of rivers and oceans. Some sturgeon species can grow to enormous sizes, reaching 12 feet in length.

Sturgeon and paddlefish are harvested for their meat and roe (fish eggs), which is then processed into caviar, a very expensive product for which there is a high demand.  Sturgeon roe now represents more than 90% of the commercial caviar market.

In the United States, the American paddlefish is the most common species harvested for caviar. It is found throughout the tributaries of the U.S., most prominently located in the Mississippi River watershed.  

Sturgeons require, on average, 8-12 years to reach sexual maturity and juveniles typically experience a high mortality rate, making them especially vulnerable to overfishing. Populations of many species of sturgeon, especially those found in the Caspian Sea, have sharply declined due to habitat loss and intensive harvesting for the caviar trade.

Laws & Regulations

To ensure the species’ continued survival, all species of sturgeon and paddlefish are listed in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). As a result, all international trade in sturgeon and paddlefish caviar is regulated. In addition, a resolution was passed at the 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP14) urging conservation of sturgeon and paddlefish through increased scientific research, enforcement against illegal fishing and coordination between range states.

For more information on importing or exporting sturgeon or caviar, please visit the Permits page. You can also read more about the Endangered Species Program and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and their work with sturgeon.

Also visit the CITES website for information on the Secretariat’s sturgeon program.