Washingtonians might not realize it, but a 150-million-year-old species is slipping into oblivion right under their noses.
Atlantic sturgeon, the pointy-snouted giant that can reach lengths of 14 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds, once swam with dinosaurs. The prehistoric fish was tenacious enough to survive the mass extinction more than 60 million years ago that put the Triceratops in textbooks.
But sturgeon are no match for the modern threats of pollution, overfishing, dredging, and declining ecosystem health, which together have pushed the fish to near extinction in rivers all along the Atlantic seaboard. One hundred years ago, 20,000 spawning female sturgeon inhabited the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries; now the James River is visited annually by just 300 sturgeon. In the Delaware River, 300 females swim upriver to spawn, down from 180,000 in 1890.
For millions of years, sturgeon migrated up and down the Atlantic coast, returning to rivers like the Potomac to spawn. Sturgeon were a staple fish for Native Americans and early settlers on the coast, coveted for both the meat, which was pickled or smoked, along with sturgeon eggs, used in caviar. Captain John Smith once described the James River in Virginia as having more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog and man.”
In a span of just 100 years, annual catches of sturgeon went from tens of thousands of “monster” fish down to a mere handful. Reviving the sturgeon population has been a persistent challenge. Atlantic sturgeon can live for up to 60 years, and like humans, they begin breeding only when they become teenagers.
“Sturgeon management is extremely difficult given their age of sexual maturity,” says Bryan King, associate director of the District Department of the Environment, who sits on the regulatory board that manages the fish. “You can liken sturgeon regeneration to forest regeneration. It’s going to take 20 years to see anything significant.”
King has been fishing in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for more than 30 years, and says he has never seen a sturgeon. The last known Atlantic sturgeon catch occurred in 1970, when a pair of brothers hooked a 170-pound, seven-foot fish from the Potomac River.
Today, hooking one is illegal. In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the agency that regulates the catch of marine fish in state waters, implemented a 40-year moratorium on fishing for the gentle giant.
In 2012, Atlantic sturgeon were listed under the Endangered Species Act, a controversial move because it prohibited biologists from mixing wild sturgeon with domestically-raised counterparts—a mix some say would save the species from extinction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Maryland have proposed using 60 domesticated Atlantic sturgeon from a hatchery in the Hudson to restock the Potomac. The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin has thrown its support behind the proposal, in hopes of convincing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to overlook the prohibition on mixing.
Dr. Louis Daniel, the director of North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries, says the Endangered Species Act listing has caused problems in his state as well. “We have a new aquaculture facility where they were hoping to do some hatchery work, rearing Atlantic sturgeon for reintroduction, and that work has been stopped,” Daniel told TakePart.
Whatever NOAA decides, it’s clear that all parties involved will have to get creative if we'll have any hope of saving the dinosaur fish.
“I’m 40 years old, and in my lifetime, there have only been three or so cohorts of reproductive age sturgeon,” King says. “If you only knew three people old enough to have kids right now, that would completely restructure your thinking when it comes to the population.”