The corpse of a bizarre-looking creature washed ashore in Folly Beach, South Carolina. The large “sea monster” confounded residents, but a local veterinarian identified it as a rare but native fish. Any ideas what it could be?
There are several sturgeon species in North America, and all get large. The Atlantic sturgeon is the species that is found in South Carolina waters, and they can grow to be 15 feet long and weigh 800 pounds (although more commonly they are less than ten feet long and weigh around 300 pounds). Sturgeons have been around for over 100 million years, and individual fish can live to be over 60 years old.
Their bodies are covered in bony plates called scutes rather then scales, and they have tiny eyes and barbels on their face that help them locate prey in the muddy bottom of murky water, all of which gives them their bizarre appearance.
Sadly, sturgeon are on the decline. National Wildlife Federation reports:
Once common in American waters, sturgeon were regarded as trash fish until the mid-1800s, used only for fertilizer. By the late 19th century, however, the fish had caught on as a source of meat, leather and caviar.
Demand for sturgeon products helped put the fish into a steep decline. For example, in 1885, Great Lakes waters bordering Michigan accounted for a catch of 1.5 million pounds of sturgeon. By 1928, the catch in the area was less than 2,000 pounds. The commercial catch of white sturgeon peaked in the Columbia River in 1892 at more than 5 million pounds. During the early 1900s, the catch was scarcely 200,000 pounds.
Today, the lake, Gulf, pallid, Alabama and shortnosed species are listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the green sturgeon is being considered for listing. The white and shovelnose are still fished for sport. Sturgeon may have survived the Age of Reptiles and the ice ages, but they may not survive the excesses of humankind.