Huso huso. Rába/Danube estuary, Hungary. 1897.
A European sturgeon three meters long was considered a spectacular rarity even in 1897, when this example was caught near Györ in the River Rába.
Danube mermaids, water sprites, and monsters three times as long as a seasoned river angler – the tales of terrifying Danube monsters did not just originate in the imagination of the locals. European sturgeon up to seven meters long and weighing up to one and a half tons once found in the Danube doubtless contributed to the development of these myths.
European Sturgeon, a primeval bony fish, was common in the Black Sea, amongst other places, migrating upstream every year to lay its eggs. In the Danube, it was observed up to 2,500 kilometers from the estuary; its main spawning ground however was in Hungary – in the Middle Ages the Danube seemed to “boil” with hundreds of these enormous fishes splashing about in the water. In those days, large sturgeon were worth more than cows. In order to prevent the fishes from swimming any further, “sturgeon fences” were erected; along these barriers, huge quantities of giant sturgeons were hauled out of the river for centuries. Then sturgeon harvesting came to a complete halt in the 19th century. Today, power stations prevent sturgeons from migrating up the Danube, and all the natural populations are threatened with extinction. But large quantities are still caught – less for its flesh than for its roe. The largest of all sturgeons is the source of the priceless Beluga caviar, the most sought-after of all caviar types. A single female sturgeon can carry more than a hundred kilograms of roe in her body – an enormous motivation for overfishing, despite increased efforts to breed a cross between sturgeon and sterlet for caviar production.