It isn’t easy being a cheerleader for a bottom-feeder, but I’m feeling up for the task.
Montana’s two varieties of sturgeon -- a
miraculous, prehistoric fish that feeds at the bottom of lakes and
rivers --have recently been given an expiration date -- an official
prediction of when they will go extinct. A doomsday clock all their
own. And few folks seem to give a damn.
The end is
expected to take place for the Kootenai River white sturgeon during
the year 2030. Across the Continental Divide in the Missouri River,
Montana’s last wild pallid sturgeon will quite probably be
gone by 2017.
The biology is tragically simple, explains
Brian Marotz, a state fisheries biologist deeply involved in the
issue. Dams on the Kootenai and Missouri rivers have corked off the
natural spring freshet that triggers spawning. Or put it another
way, the dams slammed a concrete curtain on the spawning.
That’s how you spell extinction.
Extinction takes a
while because sturgeons live so long. A white sturgeon may live 100
years. A female won’t produce eggs until she’s 30. So
predicting the inevitable outcome is a relatively simple matter of
counting the fish, figuring their ages and doing the subtraction.
Saving sturgeon, on the other hand, seems a much more
stubborn problem, our culture being reluctant to give up or alter
dams that provide hydropower, flood control and navigation.
But here’s why we should care about sturgeon: If
you are the literalist Christian type, I’m fine with that.
Sturgeons are part of God’s creation and God surely
doesn’t take kindly to us squandering the natural world
that’s been so generously provided for us.
the other hand, you lean toward the fossil record, here’s
another version. Complex, multicellular life on earth is perhaps
550 million years old. Five times in the past 550 million years,
comets, meteors or some other catastrophe slammed into this planet,
triggering mass extinction. The biggest of these calamities was the
Permian Extinction, about 250 million years ago.
blow wiped out perhaps 95 percent of all life forms in the oceans.
It was curtains for most species, but it proved a great opportunity
for a blossoming form of life called the sturgeon. Sturgeons are
essentially vacuum cleaners with fins. They swim around, sucking up
dead and living protein.
Jeer if you must, but this
strategy has kept sturgeon on Earth for 250 million years. Modern
sturgeon species, the white and pallid for example, emerged in the
time of the dinosaurs, about 70 million years ago. Fossil beds in
Montana are strewn with the remains both of sturgeon and dinosaurs.
Sturgeon easily survived the meteor strike that KO’d the
dinosaurs, and likewise coasted through the ice ages of the last 3
million years that ushered in our current theater of mammals, from
moose to muskrats to you and me.
Sturgeons look like
dinosaurs because they basically are dinosaurs. Columbia River
sturgeons grow to 15 feet long, which is longer than any car
I’ve ever owned. They can weigh 1,500 pounds, making them as
massive as a bull bison.
I have met old-timers along the
Snake, Salmon and Kootenai rivers who used to catch white sturgeon
by setting massive trot lines in a deep river hole and anchoring
them to trees. When the line tightened, the fishermen hooked a team
of horses to the rope and yanked the fish ashore.
Sometimes, if the fish was particularly huge and the fisherman had
just one horse, the fish would win the tug-of-war and drown the
horse. Fisherman figured it was an improvement when they got
tractors. (Montana’s sturgeons are not that large, but still
reportedly put up a herculean fight.)
Yes, the white,
light flesh of sturgeons makes them delicious. Caviar is the
product sturgeons are most famous for, but you have to kill
precious adult females for the roe. Russian species of sturgeon are
going extinct as poachers kill fish for black-market caviar.
I don’t know what else a sturgeon is good for. To
the best of my knowledge, sturgeons hold no cure for cancer or
stand to otherwise better the condition of mankind. I don’t
think they have to. I want to keep sturgeon around simply out of
respect. Out of awe. Out of our responsibility toward our children.
Out of the sheer shame and horror of our own capacity to destroy.
Staring into the abyss of time is like staring into the
abyss of space. One sturgeon reflects a continuum of life dating
back, one century at a time, two and a half million centuries.
Listen up. You can hear the clock ticking.