The federal government declared Tuesday that it's formally listing most Atlantic sturgeon along the East Coast — including in the Chesapeake Bay — as endangered, providing new legal protection for the big, prehistoric-looking fish believed to be at risk of extinction.

Acting on a petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service classified four populations of sturgeon from New York to Florida, including the bay's, as endangered. A fifth group in the Gulf of Maine was labeled threatened, a lesser stage of rarity.

Brad Sewell, an NRDC attorney, said the environmental group hopes listing can spur the species' recovery, much as it seems to have for a related fish, the short-nosed sturgeon.

Fishing for Atlantic sturgeon has been banned for a decade, but they continue to be caught accidentally by fishermen harvesting other species, particularly in commercial gill nets along the coast, according to Sewell. The NOAA decision, posted on the agency's website without alerting news media, said officials would work with state officials and the seafood industry to find ways of reducing bycatch "without unduly hampering fishing activities."

Maryland officials have said a few dozen Atlantic sturgeon turn up in fishermen's nets in the bay every year, but there's been no evidence for decades of them spawning in state waters.

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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