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Sturgeon: The Fish of Many Talents

In many people’s young life, it was commonplace to go fishing. They would get ready for a weekend trip with their family. Find the coolest bait in their tackle box and use it the whole weekend. When they would finally catch their first fish, the story was something of legend. It was like something that no person in history had ever seen before. The size: gigantic. The color: a unique fluorescent-lime yellow. Features: No one can recall because of how big it was. As much as we’d like to believe these stories, we grow up realizing there isn’t a fish that huge. There is one fish, though, that exceeds this mythical status. It is a monster that lurks beneath the water immune to baits. It has been around since the prehistoric era and is a relic of the past. It has provided vast amounts of materials for humans to conserve and create throughout our history. This fish is a sturgeon. 

There are many different species of sturgeon. The most valuable one throughout history was the Russian sturgeon because of the environment that it grew up in. The habitat of the sturgeon is usually in lakes or rivers and the cold, clean water provided an excellent breeding ground for this sturgeon. This particular species is said to provide the best quality in the multitude of materials a sturgeon provides. The Russian sturgeon is one of 27 different species of sturgeon, and each provides a wide range of size and features. Fishermen from around the world would try to catch this bottom-dweller with a variety of techniques, but the sturgeon is a survivor. It’s a non-predatory fish that is a strong swimmer and thus makes it very unique to catch. The traditional rod and bait do not work so, British fisherman would construct strong nets and hang them across a river near spawning ground. Even with this seemingly insurmountable challenge to survive, many sturgeons seem to do so. Sturgeon were such a prized possession that all sturgeons were declared property of the monarchy in England.

The reason the sturgeon has a unique status is because of the many materials it can produce. One of the best uses of sturgeon is through bookmaking and repair. The isinglass that can be produced from the sturgeon is melted down into a thick, clear, and glue-like substance. See below for more information on isinglass. According to Cornell paper conservator, Tatyana Petukhova, the isinglass allowed Romans and Egyptians to adhere book pages together to create a strong yet flexible bond. The substance is close to super glue and was extremely valuable throughout history. Isinglass was especially useful in conserving parchment in Europe allowing many historical documents to stay intact. For instance, the Russians would combine isinglass with honey to provide a plasticizer for conserving many paintings and artworks. In England, isinglass was combined with molasses for the same purpose. Although isinglass is the main material used in book conservation, there are other materials used such as the skin that provide a function in historical bookmaking.

Isinglass is a substance made from the swim bladder membrane of a sturgeon. The swim bladder regulates the buoyancy of the fish and is what allows it to rise and fall in the water. The membrane is a thin, flexible, and strong material. These qualities make it ideal for the adhesive that is made into. It has other uses in brewing and is highly sought after.

The skin of the fish was used to size the paper, but also melted down to be used as fish glue. Its texture is similar to many other fish, but the main reason it was used more so than other fish was because one sturgeon provides much more material in general than other fish. The British sturgeon mentioned before was enormous. Its length is typically around four feet, but it can reach a size of six feet and around 800 pounds. With the sheer size this sturgeon has, there is an abundant amount of skin that comes with it. The process to make glue out of the skin is as simple as melting it down to a liquid. Once in liquid form, it can be used to adhere pages together. It provides a strong adhesion once dried, but doesn’t match the strength that isinglass has. Another use of the skin is to size paper. Sizing the paper with its skin provides an extra barrier to outside elements and increases the lifespan of the paper. These elements of a sturgeon have made it an integral part in the history of bookmaking and civilization.

There is no doubt sturgeon have been physically involved in writing the history of many centuries, but they’re still involved in making today’s history. The isinglass that is produced is still used in paper conservation around the world. Paper conservators have tried to learn techniques of applying the isinglass properly and have said that there are many things people can learn today. There are even modern patents and manuals that explain the most efficient way to extract isinglass from a sturgeon. The sturgeon is continuing to be used and will continue to be used in the future. 

The story of sturgeon certainly is about their history and almost mythical status throughout mankind. They are a factory for materials that aid in writing and recording history. The sturgeon has survived for millions of years. It is seen as a prehistoric relic to many biologists and we may not have even discovered the full potential it holds. As we continue to advance and learn the different nuances the fish holds, we can continue to learn and apply techniques.


Key Resources

Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon's "The System of Natural History

Anoosheh Koochekian and Zareh Ghorban's “Production of Isin Glass from the Swim Bladder of Sturgeons

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1 Comment

Matthew Coletta
Matthew Coletta
Apr 30, 2020

I really enjoyed this piece! I learned a lot of fascinating things about a creature that I likely would have never even been introduced to in this piece. The use of Isinglass is really interesting stuff. Really enjoyed learning from you!

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