A Blue View: Bringing Back the Atlantic Sturgeon

It’s hard to believe that once, not long ago, 14-foot-long, 800-pound fish could be found at the bottom of freshwater rivers throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. The Atlantic sturgeon—a bony, prehistoric-looking fish—once regularly traveled through the Bay during spring to spawn in Virginia’s James and York rivers.

Published November 24, 2015

atlantic-sturgeon

Unfortunately, you won’t find many of these once prevalent fish today. Overharvest is largely to blame. These fish were considered a delicacy in Europe during the 17th century, and their meat, eggs and oil were exported overseas for a pretty penny. The trend eventually made its way to the United States in 1850, when sturgeon meat and roe became a popular indulgence.

What consumers didn’t realize, however, is that these fish take more than a decade to reach sexual maturity, and they don’t spawn every year—which means populations took a nosedive after decades of high demand. At its peak in 1890, fishermen extracted a staggering nearly 7.4 million pounds of Atlantic sturgeon. Just 30 years later, that number dropped to less than 100,000 pounds.

Today, the small populations that still exist face new threats. They risk being caught as bycatch in fisheries targeting other species, and they suffer from habitat loss due to dredging, dams, water withdrawals and other development. Many of the gravel banks these fish use to lay eggs have silted over after nearby forests were cleared for farming.

Various measures are being taken to protect and restore the Atlantic sturgeon. In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission instituted a coast-wide moratorium on the harvest of these ancient fish, banning the fishing of Atlantic sturgeon for the next 40 years or more. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service declared the species as endangered in 2012, a designation that provides further protection and shields it from fishing, dredging and other human activities.

Research is also being carried out to learn more about the species in the hopes of discovering better ways to restore populations and protect it in the future. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with several states to tag wild sturgeon along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico in order to study their migration patterns. Commercial and recreational fishermen who happen to catch one of these tagged fish report the numbers to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helping track its distribution, mortality, age, growth and coastal migration patterns.

Other restoration efforts include the construction of critical sturgeon habitats and the production of hatchery-reared fish for further study and release into the wild. Research by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science sparked a plan by the James River Association—in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University and Luck Stone—to build an artificial spawning reef for sturgeon in the James River in 2010. The project used large chunks of granite to create a 70-foot-by-300-foot spawning ground at the Turkey Island Cutoff near the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

Individuals can also make a difference in restoring Atlantic sturgeon populations. These fish are sensitive to water quality, and excessive amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can promote sudden blooms of phytoplankton. When the phytoplankton die, the decomposition extracts large amounts of oxygen from the water, potentially creating dangerously low oxygen levels along the bottom of rivers where eggs and larvae grow and sturgeon feed.

Reduce stormwater runoff around the home to prevent these excess nutrients from being carried from your yard to local waterways. Try building a rain garden, or using a rain barrel to collect stormwater. Avoid fertilizing, or at least keep fertilizer use to a minimum. What you do in your backyard will benefit not only the Atlantic sturgeon but also many of the local aquatic creatures inhabiting our watershed.

Episode Transcript

Consider the Atlantic sturgeon. Huge, silvery-brown, snout-nosed, covered in horny plates called scutes, prehistoric-looking. Like sharks, Atlantic sturgeon have been swimming the seas and breeding in East Coast bays and rivers since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Some of the earliest vertebrates on the planet, their fossil record dates back 150 million years.

Along with cod, Atlantic sturgeon are one of our nation’s so-called "founding fish." The residents of Jamestown, the New World’s first English settlement, would have starved were it not for the protein these fish provided. Early colonists described Native American Powhatan men climbing onto the backs of adult sturgeon and riding them, as a rite of passage. Don’t try that at home.

Atlantic sturgeon were so abundant in the Chesapeake and Delaware bays in the 18th and 19th centuries that they comprised the two largest caviar fisheries in North America. In those times, it was a spring ritual to watch the annual sturgeon run up the rivers and streams of our region. In fact, Chesapeake mariners of the time complained that there were so many of these lumbering giants that sturgeon constituted a hazard to navigation.

Almost unknown to us today, Atlantic sturgeon still carry the distinction of being the largest and longest-living organisms in the rivers of the Eastern Seaboard. Historically, they have been measured at up to 14 feet, weighed in at 800 pounds and proven to live up to 60 years.

But there’s a wrinkle to this story. For today, you won't find one of those 800-pounders, because for all intents and purposes, they no longer exist. In annual sturgeon surveys in the Chesapeake Bay since 1950, no young fish have been counted. That’s zero. In 1997, a moratorium was placed on all catches, and the Atlantic sturgeon is now listed as a critically endangered species.

How did this this big, strong, long-lived fish, once so numerous that we complained about it, come to this? The answer is simple and blunt: Humans overfished them, and we made their habitat almost unlivable.

At the peak of the Chesapeake Bay sturgeon fishery in the 1890s, 7 million pounds of sturgeon were harvested and shipped off to New York, Boston and Chicago to satisfy an insatiable demand for smoked Atlantic sturgeon and pricey caviar. By 1920, there were no more fish to catch, and the fishery collapsed.

Due in part to its unique characteristics of long life and slow reproduction, the Chesapeake’s Atlantic sturgeon population has not been able to recover. They spawn only once every two years and, like humans, don’t become reproductive until their teens. As an anadromous species—one that lives in saltwater for most of its life and then seeks freshwater to spawn—sturgeon need clean, sediment-free rivers to reproduce. Unfortunately, dredging, damming of rivers, agricultural runoff and growing urban areas mean the Chesapeake region has historically neglected to provide these conditions.

But as in every such saga, there is hope. The unsung heroes of this story are fisheries biologists, whose sturdy goal is to bring the Atlantic sturgeon back to viable populations in the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay and the James, Hudson and Delaware rivers. The Departments of Natural Resources for Maryland and Delaware; the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; and our own University of Maryland, through its Finfish Aquaculture Program, are currently building up a broodstock of young sturgeon, with a target of releasing them in a few years to repopulate their historic range, in waters now much improved.

To see this prehistoric fish again in the mighty Chesapeake will be one of those back-to-the-future moments we dream of. Can we do it?

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