All The Fish

Sturgeon Snoots and Scutes

Living Dinosaurs of the Pacific Coast

3 men holding a large sturgeon by a boat
An adult White Sturgeon held boat-side in the Snake River. 📷 Ken Lepla/Idaho Power Company
a man holds a small sturgeon on a boat
A young White Sturgeon. 📷 Laura Heironimus/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Sturgeon get themselves into all sorts of interesting places.”

Big, Old Fish

Capable of reaching lengths of 20 feet, White Sturgeon are the largest fish in in North America (but 10–12 feet is considered large by today’s standards). Green Sturgeon are no size slouch either—they max out around 8 feet long but are more commonly in the 4–5 foot range. Sturgeon are also the grandmas and grandpas of the fish world, with greens living into their 70s and whites sometimes reaching the centenarian mark.

If that’s not enough, sturgeon were swimming on this earth over 200 million years — they’re living dinosaurs.

Sturgeon snoots

Underside of a white sturgeon’s snout
mouth of a white sturgeon
The vacuum end of a large White Sturgeon on the Columbia River. 📷 Katrina Liebich
top of a sturgeon snout
White Sturgeon snout from above. 📷 Katrina Liebich

Sturgeon scutes

Sturgeon have five rows of bony, diamond-shaped scales along the length of their body. These modified ganoid scales (scutes) act as armor. And they can be quite sharp, especially on younger sturgeon and Green Sturgeon (careful handling them!).

young sturgeon with sharp scutes
young sturgeon with sharp scutes
Sharp scutes on a young Columbia River White Sturgeon. 📷 Katrina Liebich
up close look at sturgeon scutes
Gulf Sturgeon scutes. 📷 USFWS/Ryan Hagerty

Vulnerable

Despite existing on earth for eons, sturgeon have some vulnerabilities. They mature late (around 15 years old) and don’t spawn every year. And they inhabit large river systems that have seen a lot of man-made changes in recent history that are proving expensive and extremely challenging to reverse. For these reasons, sturgeon can be vulnerable to fishing pressure and their populations are slow to respond to conservation actions.

Green sturgeon on a measuring board
Biologists prepare to measure a Green Sturgeon before returning it to the river. 📷 Laura Heironimus/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
sturgeon in the water from above
White Sturgeon. 📷 USDA/NRCS

Fishing for sturgeon

In areas where sturgeon populations can sustain fishing pressure (like the Lower Columbia River below Bonneville Dam), White Sturgeon support recreational and commercial fisheries. Washington and Oregon work together to track their numbers and health each year and there are strict harvest quotas and limits in place to protect spawning and mature fish.

angler with a sturgeon from above
angler with a sturgeon from above
White Sturgeon caught with a whole shad and to be released. 📷 Courtesy of Katrina Liebich

“I’ve seen shad fishermen put all their shad on a stringer and one big sturgeon will come up and suck down the whole stringer and swim off with it.”

Sturgeon will also feed on full-grown salmon that have migrated upriver to spawn. Remember, sturgeon are built to swim long distances up big, powerful rivers. They’re big and very strong. Some people underestimate how strong their tails can be when handling them.

“I’ve known more than one angler who‘s been tail slapped by a sturgeon.”

a sturgeon swimming away
a sturgeon swimming away
A White Sturgeon shows off its powerful heterocercal tail. 📷 Katrina Liebich

Green or White?

These two species differ in their coloration; barbell and vent placement; and number and sharpness of scutes. If you catch a sturgeon, here are some helpful tips:

men holding a sturgeon in the water
men holding a sturgeon in the water
Fish biologists measure a White Sturgeon then release it. 📷 Ken Lepla/Idaho Power Company

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service