The sturgeon is a singular creature, a strange-looking Methuselah of an animal. Her spine is more cartilage than bone but she makes up for that with a bony external corset. She lives her long life with languid deliberation, sucking in food between her toothless gums, making her slow way to the freshwater spawning ground of her ancestors by a strange climbing action. The barbels either side of her mouth often seem to be used like walking sticks. She’s easy to catch. That the sturgeon isn’t already extinct is a miracle.
The Romans were quick to see the sturgeon’s value to an army on the move. A mature sturgeon can easily weigh 2000 lbs. Its flesh can feed a lot of soldiers, quite aside from the possible bonus of its delicious eggs. Along the Danube the Romans built their forts where sturgeon were plentiful, at Carsium and Noviodunum and Nikopolis and adopted the methods of the local population, trapping sturgeon with willow fences. Once caught the sturgeon has the extraordinary ability to put its physiological functions on a low setting, a sort of self-induced coma, and so remain alive out of water for many hours. Fishermen tell stories of sturgeon that have survived for days, of others that have quietly wriggled their way back into the water and escaped. But fishermen tell all kinds of tall tales.
The Danube sturgeon has had a hard time of it since the Iron Gates dams were built in the 1970s and 80s. They are now effectively cut off from their ancestral spawning grounds. One wonders what it must feel like to battle hopelessly against a frustrated folk memory.
Since the reign of Edward II sturgeon have been designated Royal property so if you catch one the first person you call is the Receiver of Wreck. The officer with this rather enviable job title is actually a civil servant in the Department of Transport whose principal duties relate to flotsam, jetsam and lagan. Not a lot of Royal Fish calls, presumably.
Nevertheless, if you happen to land a sturgeon the Receiver of Wreck is bound to offer it first to the monarch. Buckingham Palace apparently no longer serves sturgeon so the last time the Queen was offered one she requested, as it had been kept alive, that it be re-homed in a Sea Life Centre. I wonder why she didn’t order it to be released into some tidal estuary. Perhaps it was injured.