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Atlantic Sturgeon: Back to the Future

Bringing Back the Atlantic Sturgeon

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—historically traveled through the Bay during spring to spawn in Virginia’s James and York rivers.

Unfortunately, you won’t find any 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 coastwide 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 its 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.


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