Maryland sturgeon restoration effort in limbo

— "Sturgie" is biding his time, waiting to be introduced to the right female.

Caught off Hooper's Island five years ago, the hulking six-foot Atlantic sturgeon passes his days lolling about in a large tank at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory near Cambridge. Scientists have been experimenting with him and dozens of other sturgeon here, trying to unlock the secrets of breeding them in captivity and ultimately restore a big, ancient fish that's virtually vanished from Maryland waters.

It's been slow going, in part because Atlantic sturgeon, which have been around for 120 million years or so, take more than a decade to reach sexual maturity, and they don't spawn every year. There have been only two chances so far, but no young fish.

"We knew coming in it was going to be a very long-term commitment," said Erin Markin, a faculty research assistant who oversees the lab's sturgeon work.

But now the 9-year-old restocking effort faces a new, possibly insurmountable, challenge — the federal government recently declared that the Chesapeake's depleted population of the fish is endangered, meaning any efforts to handle or work with them just got tangled up in more red tape.

"It's not looking terribly promising," said Steve Minkkinen, sturgeon recovery project leader for the Maryland Fishery Resources Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He questions whether state officials will have the patience or money to continue the quest in the face of strict federal regulation that comes with an endangered designation.

Many conservationists hailed the announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put four of five East Coast populations of Atlantic sturgeon on the endangered species list. They believe the legal protection that comes with the listing will help shield a remarkable and once-abundant fish from further harm from fishing, dredging or other human activities.

Overfishing is mainly what depleted Acipenser oxyrhynchus, though damming their spawning rivers and polluting the water didn't help. The entire coast once teemed with the big fish, which spawn in fresh water and range from Nova Scotia to Florida during a life that can span 60 years or maybe more. From colonial times, they were sought after by fishermen for their flavorful smoked meat, and especially the females for their roe, or eggs, which were prepared as the delicacy caviar.

At one time, the Chesapeake Bay was second only to the Delaware River as North America's leading source of caviar, and 700,000 pounds of fish were reported caught in 1890, according to historical records. The bonanza was short-lived, as the baywide catch had plummeted to 22,000 pounds by the 1920s. Small numbers of sturgeon continued to be caught until a coastwide moratorium was imposed in 1998.

No one knows how many Atlantic sturgeon remain in the bay. A remnant population apparently survived in Virginia's waters, and biologists have found a couple of less-than-year-old fish, evidence of spawning, in the James River. Though several dozen sturgeon — occasionally even more — turn up annually in fishing nets in Maryland, no little fish have been seen in the state for decades, leading scientists to believe they no longer breed here.

Biologists tried stocking the Nanticoke River in 1996 with 3,000 juvenile Atlantic sturgeon that had been bred in a New York hatchery from fish caught in the Hudson River. But since then scientists have turned their efforts toward learning what sturgeon there are naturally in the bay, where they come from and what it'll take to get the fish to stay and reproduce successfully again in state rivers.

After a few years of fruitlessly searching for the fish themselves, government biologists opted to encourage commercial fishermen to turn in any sturgeon they caught accidentally, so their location could be logged and the fish tagged for tracking. Fishermen have been paid $25 a piece for an immature fish to $250 for one six feet or longer.

Since 1996, biologists have logged in about 2,000 Atlantic sturgeon caught in Maryland waters, most below the Bay Bridge. They're mostly immature fish and all tourists, it seems, as genetic analysis determined they're from Virginia, the Hudson and other rivers along the coast. They're apparently justpassing through, experts say. Like striped bass, shad and other anadromous fish, after spending time in the ocean they typically return to the river where they hatched in order to spawn in summer.

"We wouldn't have any information at all on sturgeon in Maryland without the reward program," said Brian Richardson, who heads up sturgeon recovery efforts for the state Department of Natural Resources. The state can't afford the staff time needed to monitor for them, he said.

Some of those netted fish have been kept for research and breeding, including a rare pair of mature females used in unsuccessful spawning attempts.

But as of Thursday the rewards program will be terminated. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, it's illegal to catch, kill or harass protected animals, and any activity that involves capturing them and might accidentally harm one requires an "incidental take" permit. Officials say it's not clear yet what would be required to get federal approval to continue letting fishermen hold them for tagging, but fear it will be lengthy and costly to do so.

Tom O'Connell, fisheries director for the state Department of Natural Resources, said officials tried to get one of those permits in 2000 to tag similar-looking shortnose sturgeons that fishermen also turn in under the reward program. But that species has long been classified as endangered, and O'Connell said the state gave up on seeking the permit after seven years.

O'Connell said he's not optimistic about the state's ability to continue with the captive breeding and restocking effort either. Partners in that include the Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and GenOn, the Atlanta-based energy company that operates a sturgeon holding facility at its Chalk Point power plant on the Patuxent River in Prince George's County.

With the energy company's generosity and limited public funds, it's added up to a multimillion-dollar investment over the past decade. The partnership has collected a couple hundred fish at four facilities, including state-run hatcheries in Oxford and in southern Maryland.

Officials with NOAA's marine fisheries service said they would work with scientists to see that they could get the permits. But based on past experience, officials say they're not expecting quick action.

"If it's going to take a year, longer probably, to determine if we can get a scientific research permit, is that something the state wants to continue making investments in?" O'Connell asked. "The budget situation is getting tighter and tighter every day, it seems."

Kim Damon-Randall, supervisory biologist overseeing protected species in NOAA's Northeast regional fisheries office in Gloucester, Mass., said federal officials could work with state officials to secure a permit that would allow the reward program and subsequent research to continue. But she acknowledged it may need to be suspended until the permit could be processed.

Conservationists acknowledge there may be more red tape for scientists.

"There is additional paperwork that has to be done, but it's necessary paperwork to ultimately save the species," said Brad Sewell with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which petitioned NOAA to protect Atlantic sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act.

David Secor, a fisheries ecologist with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, also acknowledges that there's a potential risk for whatever native fish remain in the wild if humans start stocking rivers with thousands of hatchery-reared fish. Those introduced fish, with a limited number of parents, may alter or even dilute the genetic diversity of the species.

With the change in the Atlantic sturgeon's legal status, Secor said, "I don't look toward any kind of hatchery-based restoration program in the near future. I think the emphasis is on natural recovery."

One thing that should help with that recovery, Secor noted, would be continued cleanup of the nutrient pollution that turns vast areas of the bay into an oxygen-starved "dead zone" every summer. Secor said research indicates Atlantic sturgeon are the most sensitive fish in the bay to low oxygen levels.

That could take another 15 years or more, and scientists say it's anyone's guess when, or if, Atlantic sturgeon spawned in Virginia waters become so abundant they spread northward into Maryland.

Asked what would become of Sturgie and the other captive sturgeon in the meantime if their keepers don't get the permits to continue with the restocking effort, Richardson said they'd in all likelihood have to be released back into the wild. He makes clear that would be a personal if not official disappointment.

"They're really hardy, and they're charismatic," he said. "They do funny things," added later. "They're like no other fish we've worked with before."

An earlier version gave an incorrect location for the Chalk Point power plant. The Sun regrets the error.

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