Massive and tasty, the white sturgeon’s numbers are dwindling in the Delta

Published: Lodi News-Sentinel, 2010

The wardens carry guns, their chests bulging a bit more than normal, a telltale sign of the snug bullet-proof vests they wear beneath their regulation khaki shirts. There are eight of them, all dressed in green cargo pants and heavy boots. One carries a search warrant.

The job of a California Department of Fish and Game officer is 98 percent surveillance, minor investigations and office work. Only 2 percent of their time is spent involved with sting operations like this one, but it’s that 2 percent that sends adrenaline coursing through warden Patrick Foy’s veins.

After securing the house, a residence in Citrus Heights, Foy begins to systematically search each room for evidence. The contraband he’s looking for cannot be snorted or smoked or injected.

He is seeking an illegally caught fish  white sturgeon.

Foy described the sturgeon bust with fervor, still excited even though the sting was almost six months ago in late February.

White sturgeon, the leviathans of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, are protected by the badge. And for good reason. Their adult population numbers were at a 50-year low of 10,000 in 2005, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

“As of 10 years ago sturgeon populations were doing quite well,” Foy said. “It has only been in the recent years that populations started to take a dive.”

In recent months, officials say sturgeon numbers have started to nudge upward. Even so, they remain concerned about the long-term survival of the massive fish and plan to continue aggressive enforcement tactics.

An ancient giant

Sturgeon have been around for thousands of years. And they look it.

Their boneless bodies are covered with rows of sharp diamond-shaped plates called scutes, capable of piercing the skin of any unprepared fishers. They have stubbed noses which precede massive, powerful torsos that can grow up to 20 feet in length. These living reminders of a prehistoric past are capable of pulling a fishing boat across the river — that is, if anglers are capable of holding onto their poles.

While sturgeon populations may be struggling, citations for broken rules and regulations are on the rise. There has been a 142-percent increase since 2006, with 133 individuals cited last year, according to the DFG website. New regulations in March 2007 placed a three-fish annual bag limit on white sturgeon and required individuals to tag their fish and carry a fishing report card, and may have contributed to the increase in citations, Foy said.

Violating any of the strict regulations can have hefty repercussions for anglers. (Failing to properly tag a white sturgeon is a misdemeanor resulting in a maximum sentence of six months in jail plus a $1,000 fine. )

For those caught in an organized poaching ring, the penalties are far more serious.

“When two people conspire together to commit a crime, it’s a felony,” Foy said. “One person makes a mistake. Two people: it’s a felony, it’s not a mistake.”

During the February sting operation, Foy and his seven colleagues discovered three large adult sturgeon carcasses and approximately four gallons of fresh sturgeon eggs. As a result, two Russian immigrants were arrested for poaching-related crimes as well as a felony conspiracy and face between $5,000 and $40,000 in fines plus up to one year in jail.

Yet despite the consequences, repeat transgressors are still common.

“The fines and penalties aren’t stiff enough to deter the worst offenders,” Foy said. “For them, it’s just the cost of doing business.”

Sturgeon: A very tasty fish

With the texture of a tender breast of chicken, sturgeon meat is incredibly tasty, said Dan Bacher, editor of The Fish Sniffer, an online newspaper. And poachers know it.

“The meat is like no other fish,” he said. “It’s the best meat I’ve ever had.”

Wild white sturgeon cannot be sold commercially, but a slick poacher can make more than $3,000 on the black market for a large egg-bearing female catch. The meat itself is not expensive — only $6 per pound — but sturgeon caviar is highly prized, selling for $150 per pound on the black market, with one fish capable of producing up to 25 pounds of eggs, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The draw for wild sturgeon is mostly cultural, Foy said. Immigrants from Russia, a country that has decimated its populations of the fish, come to the U.S. to meet demand for the delicacies, he added.

Yet poaching isn’t the only threat to sturgeon in California. The same issues that have caused a decline in populations for salmon and Delta Smelt — poor water quality and engineering obstructions — are also killing these denizens of the deep, said Jon Rosenfield, conservation biologist with The Bay Institute. Sturgeon are just another casualty in the fight over Delta water.

The real problem is the way Californians are treating the ecosystem, he added.

“One dead fish is only one dead fish,” Rosenfield said, referring to poaching, “but the problems from water quality and water quantity could affect all the fish in the system. You’re not going to solve this problem by stopping poaching.”

The Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary is in trouble, he said, but repairing the habitat of the sturgeon is a big step in the right direction and could have lasting positive effects on the Delta.

The main issue is the timing and volume of water, which correlates to its quality.

“More water is being taken out to send to Southern California and for agribusiness in San Joaquin Valley,” Bacher said.

Because sturgeon can live for such a long time, more than 100 years, pesticides in the water may accumulate in their tissue which could cause health problems, said Jerry Brunf, environmental scientist with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Smaller organisms that make up the sturgeon’s diet may also be affected by pesticide-runoff, impairing fish higher up on the food chain, Brunf added.

Other obstructions such as pumps and flood plains can trap and kill the fish, Rosenfield said.

Despite the turmoil beneath its waters, the Delta is enchanting this time of year.

The serene landscape is in stark contrast to the scene of the sting operation — three pale sturgeon, once titans of the estuary, lying on a greasy concrete floor.