Descendants of fish that roamed the seas when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Atlantic sturgeon are in danger of disappearing just like their ancestors. They're the biggest, strangest-looking fish most people have never seen in the Chesapeake Bay, so few are left in these waters.
Now, at the urging of an environmental group, the federal government wants to formally classify them as endangered, which triggers stricter legal protection from harm for the remaining sturgeon. But some scientists and state officials worry it could also complicate efforts to restore their numbers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service has proposed listing four populations of Atlantic sturgeon along the East Coast, including the bay's, as endangered, and a group in the Gulf of Maine as threatened. Under the Endangered Species Act, the fish could not be caught, killed, harassed or collected.
The action was prompted by a petition last year from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"It's the most endangered family of fish globally," said Brad Sewell, an NRDC attorney in New York, where sturgeon also would be protected as endangered. "They're all going extinct because they require clean water, they don't start breeding until late in life and people kill them for caviar."
Olive-brown, with a pointed nose and bony plates down their back, sturgeon are large, slow-growing and long-lived. They can take 20 to 30 years to mature, reach 5 to 6 feet in length, and can live up to 60 years. They spend most of their lives in salt water, and swim into fresh rivers to spawn — though not every year. They feed on worms, mollusks and other bottom-dwelling creatures.
Members of a fish family that's been on Earth more than 120 million years, they were abundant in the bay in Colonial times. According to a fact sheet prepared by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, early settlers reported seeing huge schools of them jumping in the Susquehanna and James rivers, and complained their number and bulk made them navigational hazards.
Fishermen caught them for their eggs, and the bay was the second-largest source of caviar in the United States in 19th century. But heavy fishing pressure, loss of good spawning areas and poor water quality caused their numbers to plummet.
Fishing for them has been banned in the bay and coastwide for years, though a few dozen get caught accidentally every year in fishermen's nets. Tom O'Connell, Maryland's fisheries director, said scientists haven't seen any evidence of sturgeon spawning in state waters for the past 40 years — though there appears to be some still going on in the James in Virginia.
Federal protection could force changes in some commercial fishing practices along the coast, where sturgeon turn up as accidental bycatch, Sewell said, but it also could require changes in seemingly unrelated activities, such as dredging, which may harm sturgeon spawning habitat by stirring up bottom sediment.
O'Connell said listing bay Atlantic sturgeon as endangered would bring added public and official attention to their precarious state, but he said there is worry that strict prohibition on collecting or catching them could curtail current efforts to keep tabs on them. Fishermen now are paid to contact the department whenever a sturgeon turns up in their nets, so it can be examined before release.
Another concern is that federal restrictions may hamper the state's efforts to breed Atlantic sturgeon in captivity and release their young into the bay, O'Connell said. Scientists have yet to produce any young from fish now being held in tanks on the Eastern Shore, but believe they may be getting close, he said.
Scientists did release 3,000 young hatchery-reared sturgeon into the Nanticoke River more than a decade ago, and hundreds of those fish have since been recaptured there and elsewhere, said David Secor, a fisheries biologist with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He also said he hoped federal protections for the fish were flexible enough to allow continued research and restoration work by state officials and scientists.
"This is a fish you can't count out," Secor said, "that lives a long time and seems in that way to be resilient to extirpation." But, he added, "the bad news is they are among the most sensitive species to bad water quality." The bay's nutrient pollution robs the water of oxygen fish need to breathe, and sediment washing off land smothers the gravelly stream bottom where they lay their eggs.
A NOAA spokeswoman said it was too early to say what, if any, restrictions the endangered listing may bring. The agency is expected to make a final decision next year after reviewing public comment.