Atlantic sturgeon added to endangered species list
Illegal to catch, sturgeon get more federal protection
Sturgeon have been illegal to fish or keep since 1998, but dangers still remain, including unintended catching, dams that block spawning zones, poor water quality, dredging of spawning areas and vessel strikes.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, declared the Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic sturgeon subspecies of Atlantic sturgeon as endangered. The Gulf of Maine sturgeon was listed as threatened.
A federal study of the fish in 2007 revealed populations far below historic levels. Before 1890, an estimated 180,000 adult female sturgeon spawned in the Delaware River. Today, that total is believed to be fewer than 300, according to NOAA. Historically known to spawn in 38 rivers along the Atlantic coast, today sturgeon spawn in only 20 of those rivers.
The designation followed a fall 2009 petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
NOAA determined the petition had merit in January 2010 and proposed that in October 2010 the species be listed as endangered. The agency held six public hearings and received comments from 119 people or organizations, some of which opposed the designation.
“The Atlantic sturgeon survived the Ice Age but is now threatened with extinction,” council senior attorney Brad Sewell said in a release. “Despite a more than decade-old ban on fishing for the sturgeon, a host of other threats — including ongoing catch in other fisheries, habitat damage, pollution and the growing effects of climate change — have proved too challenging for the species to recover. By recognizing the fish’s endangered status, the federal government is giving this remarkable fish a fighting chance to live on into the 21st century.”
Harvested since the 1870s for their caviar, Atlantic sturgeon can live past 60 years, grow to 14 feet and weigh 800 pounds, according to the release.
Technically a bony fish, the sturgeon also share many characteristics with sharks and fin fish, said David Secor, a fisheries biologist at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons.
“They really are amazing looking fish,” he said.
Though the fish have not spawned in state waters for decades, it is known to still reproduce in the James River in Virginia and travel north into the bay and is sometimes found, though rarely, in the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, Secor said.
“Many in the Chesapeake are visiting from other rivers and states,” he added. “They tend to be fairly far-flung.”
The primary threats to Atlantic sturgeon are fisheries, where the fish can get caught up in nets and end up as part of the harvest’s bycatch, or unintentional catch. Listing the fish as an endangered species could help reduce the number of sturgeon killed in commercial nets, Secor said.
“Sturgeon tend to poke their noses into all kinds of nets,” including gill and pound nets and even crab pots, Secor said
The designation could affect the monk fish and dogfish fisheries in particular, he added.
Secor said the designation “maybe was warranted” since bycatching is such a threat to the species, but as a part of the current efforts to restore the Atlantic sturgeon population, he described himself as “ambivalent” about the listing.
He said the ban on fishing sturgeon has been effective and that there is evidence the fish’s numbers are rebounding in the Hudson River in eastern New York and rivers throughout New England.
“South of the Chesapeake, it’s not looking too good,” Secor said.
But he called the Atlantic sturgeon a “resistant species,” as evidenced by their prehistoric descendants.
“I like to think they swam with dinosaurs,” he said.
The good news for the Atlantic sturgeon is that “they are all over the place,” Secor said.
But the bad news is that water quality in the Chesapeake Bay is so poor that the oxygen-hungry fish has a very hard time surviving there. Secor described the Atlantic sturgeon as one of the “most sensitive species of fish to low oxygen.”