Translation of Issue 49 pages 34-38 Y Styrsiwn yng Nghymru
The sturgeon in Wales
Only occasionally does a sturgeon appear in Wales, but when one of these fish is caught it is a notable event and usually attracts attention in both local and national newspapers. Here DUNCAN BROWN, co-ordinator of the Llên Natur project which encourages everyone to record aspects of wildlife and the natural environment and which also researches and interprets records, takes a look at sturgeon in Wales by means of stories and tales from individuals and newspapers.
Two interesting recent events have given rise to this article: firstly the sturgeon caught at Pembroke Dock in September 2013  and secondly, the announcement of the National Library of Wales’ [NLW] newspapers search service last year . This service facilitates research work on a number of rare species, and it is a valuable resource for those wishing to trace the history of elements of the environmental field in Wales. In the Welsh newspapers (from the period 1804 – 1919) which had been scanned up to mid September this year, and were therefore available to be searched through this service, 76 records of sturgeons were found. This article draws heavily on information in these records, but more evidence will undoubtedly come to light as the work of scanning newspapers proceeds. Figure 1 shows a clear trend either of a) greater press interest in sturgeons over the period or b) more fishing, or c) more sturgeons! Only more work at some at point will show which!
1. The rare ‘living’ fossil
The sturgeon family (Acipenseridae) have remained, to all intents and purposes, unchanged in their present form for a hundred million years. Today approximately 25 species represent the family of Acipenseridae across the world, but only Acipenser sturio occurs, in modern times at any rate, along the north Atlantic coast (3). At one time, this was to be found as a prolific fish along the coast of Europe – from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south. Today it is limited to the estuary of the Gironde river in France, the Guadalquivir in Spain, and the Danube. Since the Middle Ages the sturgeon has been notable for its size, shape, delicate meat and eggs (caviar), to the extent that the sovereign has a reputed right to every sturgeon in the kingdom, even though that right has been exercised very arbitrarily as time has gone on.
2. Sturgeon statistics in Wales 1800–1910, based on newspaper reports (total of 76 records)
Local newspapers in the 19th century were very different to those of today in their method of presentation. Papers copied stories from each other and local papers such as the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian and the Glamorgan, Monmouth and Brecon Gazette were equally as likely to record a sturgeon from Kent or Scotland or Canada as they would a sturgeon in Wales.
In the period in question, sturgeon were recorded along the coast of Wales, in the south, mid-Wales and the north, as though they were part of a sparse population migrating towards the north on a wide front. They were found in three types of habitats, namely the estuaries of the main rivers, the open sea nearby and the rivers themselves. It is possible that, to some extent, the statistics reflect the number of fishermen and not the number of sturgeon.
Three-quarters of the sturgeon were caught during the early summer months, in May, June and July, with the numbers lessening from August onwards (Fig. 2). Not much mention is made of the caviar: the stories mainly concentrate on the delicate meat. So it is difficult to judge the condition of the fish, but the location of many of them in the higher waters of some of the rivers suggests the intention of burying eggs (with what hope of success is another matter). One exception to this is the story (see below) of a sturgeon in the 1920s laying its eggs “like sludge” on the farmyard, but no date or season is noted.
They varied in size and there was a close correlation between their weight and their length (Fig. 3).
3. How the sturgeon were caught
The sturgeon were caught by three main methods of fishing. Examples include:
i. Nets attached to sea fishing boats
Local fishmongers often ran their own salmon netting boats to supply their shops.
From the Cambrian, 26 June 1819:
Sturgeon …. A smaller fish of the same species, about 70lbs. weight, was also caught in [Swansea] Bay on Tuesday evening [23 June]….. Both were taken by boats belonging to Radford and Co. fishmongers of Swansea.
From the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, 3 June 1871
MONSTER STURGEON.—A sturgeon weighing one hundred weight and three-quarters, and measuring between seven and eight feet, was caught in the Dee last Tuesday. The fisherman broke a new net in doing so, and was greatly disappointed, having anticipated a good haul of salmon. Another sturgeon, almost equally large, was caught the previous week, and a publican, being desirous of affording an extra treat to the yeomanry quartered upon him, purchased a piece of the big fish and had it dressed, stuffed, and cooked a la fillet of veal, which was done so skilfully that his guests could not tell the difference.
ii. The nets of estuary salmon fishermen
From the Llangollen Advertiser, Denbighshire, Merionethshire and North Wales Journal (1860-1893), 10 June 1870
FLINT. A ROYAL FISH CAPTURED.- On Thursday week [2 Mehefin 1870?] a splendid sturgeon, weighing upwards of 100 lbs. was caught in the Dee, by two fishermen named Foulkes and Bithell. Twelve years have elapsed since a ‘royal fish’ was previously captured in this river, and we are told that the fishermen made a nice thing out of their prize.
iii. The nets of coracle fishermen on south Wales rivers
From the ‘Cambrian’, 18 May 1839
A sturgeon, of considerable weight, was, on Tuesday, caught in the river Towy, Carmarthenshire, by the coracle fishermen. It appeared evidently to have been attacked by some more voracious fish, as part of one gill had been torn off, and several wounds appeared on the back. Our correspondent saw it alive at Carmarthen market some hours after it had been taken.
Sometimes a number of sturgeon were caught at the same time:
From the Cambrian, 27 September 1878
…. Several sturgeon and a cuttle fish had been captured in the nets and one salmon of 50lb [Severn]
4. Social aspects
It was often the sturgeon’s fate to decorate a cold slab at a local fishmonger’s, or to be claimed and given to servants of the king or queen.
From the Cambrian, 25 June 1836
A sturgeon, upwards of 120 lbs. weight, was this week caught in the river Towy, between Carmarthen and the Ferry-Side, and exhibited to the gaze of the curious at the fish-market in the above town.
From the North Wales Express, 28 November 1890:
A large sturgeon was caught this week in Carnarvon Bay, and is exhibited at the shop of Mr Uriah Heard [it appears that Uriah Heard was captain of his own fishing boat], in High-street, Carnarvon. [The local family of Heard-Hughes still sells fish in Caernarfon).
But sometimes, the response was lukewarm and disappointing:
From the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser’, 28 June 1861:
A PROFITLESS EXHIBITION.—Last week as some fishermen were following their avocation near the mouth of the Haven, they captured a very fine sturgeon, which they conveyed to Pembroke Dock, and sent the town crier round to announce that it was for exhibition at Mr Conchar’s, at the low price of one penny, but so inert were the inhabitants that neither the exhibition or the low charge, could excite their curiosity, and at a late hour the amateur showman,—his wife unable to raise money enough to pay the crier-offered for sale, while the knight of the bell looked wistfully on.
The fate of other sturgeon was to grace the table of the king or queen of the day.
From the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette’ 13 May 1864:
NEWPORT.—AN IMMENSE STURGEON.—An immense sturgeon was caught on Friday afternoon at Goldcliff, about five miles from Newport. It measured from the nose to the tail seven feet one inch, and weighed 1261bs. The monster was exhibited in the window of Mr. E. Fennell, fishmonger, High-street, and it being a royal fish was sent on Saturday to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.—On Monday he also took a small sword fish, about 18 inches long, on the same fishery which is rented by him.—The take of salmon has been tolerably good this season.
From the Aberystwyth Observer, 13 May 1876
A STURGEON CAPTURED IN THE WYE.— A sturgeon 7ft. 8in. long, and weighing 1 cwt. 2 qrs. 191bs., was caught last week in the Wye, at the new weir, just below the Symond’s Yat station of the Ross and Monmouth railway, a point 10 or 12 miles above the tideway. Some eight years or more have elapsed since a similar capture was made, at a point, however, about seven miles higher up the river. The monster fish arrived at Windsor by Great Western train on Friday morning last, and was taken to the Castle upon its arrival, having been presented to the Queen.
From Y Dydd, 6 June 1890
STURGEON CAUGHT IN THE DEE. The sturgeon is a kind of sea fish, and one of them was caught in the River Dee the other day by two fishermen. The fish, which was an excellent example of the sturgeon, measured 43 inches in circumference, and was at least seven feet in length. It was handed over to Treasury officers, who sent it as a gift to the Queen in Balmoral.
The law currently places responsibility for the Royal Fish (whales, dolphins, porpose and sturgeon) upon the Receiver of Wreck. His duty is to process reports of wrecks, to take possession of the wreck and to share it out to the benefit of the finder and the owner (the Crown). This caused much argument at the time in the case of a sturgeon caught in Swansea Bay in 2004 and which was sold by the fisherman. The Crown’s prerogative in this case dates back to the reign of Edward II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Receiver_of_Wreck).
This is what Maitland & Campbell (3) say about the Crown’s right to sturgeon: The Sturgeon is of little value in the British Isles. By tradition, any caught are supposed to be offered to the reigning monarch but a number of years ago the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household informed one of the authors that they are rarely accepted. Occasionally they appear on fish-mongers’ slabs for curiosity value. In July 1933 an angler fishing for Salmon in the River Towy in Wales foul-hooked a huge Sturgeon. The fish eventually beached itself. It was 2.79m [110 inches] in length, 1.49m in girth and weighed 196kg. [432 pounds] It was a female and contained 36.3kg of caviar – but it was not accepted by the Royal Household.
The records indicate that considerable efforts would sometimes be made to comply with the procedure but that there were cases also of a bargain being struck immediately between the authority (the owner in law) and the fisherman:
From the Rhyl Journal, 2 August 1902
A sturgeon weighing 320 lbs -bigger than the biggest alderman in South Wales – was caught in the Conway. ….. Although the two men who caught the fish gave it up to the Customs authority, they will not be deprived of all the benefit of their good luck, for the Admiralty will pay over to them a portion of the proceeds in compensation for their trouble. They, of course, lost the better part of the catch of salmon they had anticipated, and they also rowed the sturgeon down the river for a distance of five or six miles in order to get it into the custody of his Majesty`s representative.
From the North Wales Express, 29 August 1902
Llanfairfechan. ROYAL STURGEON CAUGHT. — …Mr Harry Jones, pleasure boat proprietor, Llanfairfechan, on going down to the stake net he had previously set on the shore off the town, found a big fish in the water on the shore side of the net. With some difficulty he secured it, and found it to be a royal sturgeon. 7ft. 5in. long, 3ft. 2in in girth, and 1831b. in weight. He informed Custom-house Officer Joyce, of Bangor, who came down and, on behalf of the Admiralty, sold it to him for 6s. [as the owner in law, of course]. He retailed the bulk of it at 1s a pound. Though considerably less in size than the monster fish captured a few weeks ago at Talycefn, it was a very large one, and it is curious that two such immense fishes should be caught in these waters in one season, as they are only rarely met with.
Not all respected the law either, as the record below indicates, but it is not clear how often the law was used against people.
From the South Wales Daily Post’ 13 June 1896
ROYAL STURGEON IN THE TOWY. In the early hours of Friday [12 June] morning a very fine specimen of the Royal sturgeon was caught in a shallow on the Towy near Alltywaddon, about two miles above Ferryside. There were six Carmarthen coraclemen fishing in the locality, and they were all “in at the kill.” The fish is 8ft. 4ins in length, 3ft. 4in. in girth, and about 3cwt. in weight. Before it was got under control it broke three nets and capsized two of the coracles, with the result that two of the men had to flounder from the water on to the bank. It was exhibited throughout the day in a shed near the railway station, and crowds collected to see it. To-day (Saturday) its capturers intend exhibiting the fish in the market-place [Author’s emphasis].
5. Nantgaredig sturgeon in the 1920s
A story came to light from Guto Davies recently, via the Radio Cymru programme Galwad Cynnar, about a sturgeon that appeared in Nantgaredig yn the 1920s.
Nantgaredig is around twelve miles from the sea (taking Glanfferi as the further point of land, but a record from the year 1879 notes that a sturgeon was caught in Stowfield on the river Wye “… unusually high for a sturgeon to be found in the Wye”, this was as much as 70 miles inland from the sea as the river flows). The river records, and the eggs mentioned in Nantgaredig, suggest strongly that the aim of the fish was to lay eggs. What is it that has prevented the occasional sturgeon in Wales from becoming established and colonizing the country?
The story from Guto Davies is worth quoting in full, as well as the photograph that accompanied it:
This is a photograph given to me by my father, Eirian Davies formerly of Nantgaredig near Carmarthen, showing a sturgeon caught in the river Tywi around the twenties of the last century. Dad said that a friend of his had woken up early one morning thinking that a cow had fallen into the river near Nantgaredig bridge, as such a loud noise was to be heard. It was not a cow, but a sturgeon that had been caught in a pool on the edge of the river. The fish was caught and carried to the farm yard of Llandeilo Fawr nearby, where the photograph was taken. Dad described how the eggs (caviar) had flowed from the fish over the farmyard like sludge. As the sturgeon is a royal fish, soon a cart arrived to transport the fish to the station to be taken to the King in London. Some time later, my grandfather David Davies of Llain Nantgaredig received a royal telegram thanking him for the family’s efforts to save the large fish. After reading the telegram and waiting a moment, my grandfather rolled the paper into a ball and threw it into the fire.
3. Maitland, P.S. & Campbell, R.N. (1992) Freshwater Fishes of the British Isles. Harper Collins.