In the early morning of Oct. 1, 2007, a volunteer for the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) approached the sturgeon pond at the Bonneville Dam and found it empty. There was no evidence of struggle, no footprints, no suspicious debris—just the still brown water where seven giant fish had been swimming the day before.
Headlines like “Sturgeon didn’t walk off on their own” and “Game police pursue poachers” flooded the back pages of blogs and newspapers for little over a week. Photos of the five-foot-long, cartilage-cased creatures appeared in print like children on the back of milk cartons. The lead investigator couldn’t explain how the thieves had maneuvered past the locked gate next to I-84, or over the high fence that protected the dam’s hatchery. And, because sturgeon are enormous and impressively muscular, the sheer planning and manpower it must’ve taken to wrestle these 200-pound juveniles over the threshold made the feat seem disproportionate to its earnings: While mature sturgeon can produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in black market caviar, each of these fish were appraised at a measly $250 apiece.
White sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America, and Oregon’s Columbia River Valley lays claim to one of the last self-sustaining populations on earth. The species is not actually white but rather, as Brian Doyle clarifies in his essay “The Creature Beyond the Mountains,” “as gray as the moist lands in which it lives, the temperate rainforest west of the Pacific mountains and east of the not-very-pacific ocean.” The last of the bony freshwater fish, sturgeon are smooth and snouted and have the eerie, loping stroke of saltwater sharks. They’re rimmed in dagger-shaped plates called “scutes” and have virtually maintained their appearance from the dinosaur days, 200 million years ago. They can grow up to 20 feet long, weigh up to two tons, and live for 120 years, most of which they spend in the darkest reaches of the river floor.