Atlantic Sturgeon: Protecting an ancient giant
By BRAD RICH AND FRANK TURSI
Coastal Review Online
First of two parts
people in North Carolina have never seen an Atlantic sturgeon. Once
common along our coast, the fish became so rare that to preserve the
remaining population the state more than 20 years ago made it illegal
to possess a sturgeon. Starting Friday, April 6, though, the full
weight of the U.S. government will get behind the protection of what
remains of this ancient fish whose ancestors swam among
prized for its roe to make caviar, the Atlantic sturgeon will
officially go on the federal Endangered Species List that day, not
only in North Carolina, but also in the Delaware and Hudson rivers, the
Chesapeake Bay and the rest of the South Atlantic Ocean. The decision
comes after three years of study and a petition from an environmental
group urging that it be declared endangered.
listing carries with it severe penalties for trafficking or for
intentionally killing or maiming a sturgeon, or in the language of the
Endangered Species Act, “taking.” Lesser offenses carry lesser fines.
The law also requires that the federal government devise a plan to
protect the fish’s habitat in order to bring its population back to an
acceptable level. That will come later and could include restrictions
on such things as commercial fishing gear and how and when inlets are
on where you stand, the listing is good news for an old fish in trouble
or an economic burden that will cost the states too much to comply
with, place restrictions on an already beleaguered commercial fishing
industry and make it harder to dredge inlets and pump sand on beaches
for fear of unintentionally sucking up a sturgeon.
Carolina officials took the latter stand. Like officials in other
affected states, they opposed the listing. Officials at the state
Division of Marine Fisheries – the administrative agency of the
rule-making Marine Fisheries Commission – aren’t too worried about
fishermen being fined for intentionally taking sturgeon, since the fish
has been off limits since 1991. They’re much more concerned about those
secondary effects, particularly the changes that might be required for
fishing gear that could unintentionally snag a sturgeon as “bycatch.”
don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and we won’t know for some
time,” said Jacob Doyd, a protected species biologist at the fisheries
division’s main office in Morehead City. “We don’t know what they (the
feds) are going to put in place to protect the habitat of the fish.
fishery has been closed for more than two decades here, and we agree
with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that the species
is not in decline,” he said. “Our surveys have not showed a decline.”
commission is made up of 15 states along the East Coast and attempts to
coordinate the management and conservation of fish that share the
states’ waters. North Carolina is a member of the commission.
than listing the fish as endangered, the division would have preferred
continuing the effort to get more and better information about the
sturgeon by using more observers on fishing vessels in waters that the
sturgeon is likely to be found.
Tim Gestwicki, though, with those who think that federal protection of
the fish is long overdue. He’s the executive director of the N.C.
Wildlife Federation, which wrote a letter in December to
the National Marine Fisheries Service in support of the listing.
The service is one of two federal agencies that administer the
Endangered Species Act. Gestwicki noted in the letter that the sturgeon
population in North Carolina is at a historic low, and the 20-year-old
state ban has done nothing to appreciably improve it.
believe the time has come to list the Atlantic sturgeon as an
endangered species and to invoke the most stringent protective measures
possible to save this species from extinction,” he wrote. “Closure of
traditional fishing activities has done nothing to stimulate recovery
of the fishery. The extra level of protection of the Endangered Species
Act may relieve mortality from other sources and help the Atlantic
Be Wary of Sturgeon
sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) were so abundant along the East Coast
in the mid-1800s that boaters along the Susquehanna River in
Pennsylvania were warned about them. A fish that could reach 15 feet in
length and weigh up to 800 pounds would do severe damage to wooden
boats if the unwary pilot happened to come upon one accidentally. Back
then, these giants, which spend most of their lives in saltwater,
ranged all along the Atlantic Seaboard, from Labrador down to Florida,
undertaking extensive migrations of up to 900 miles.
winter and spring, they moved up rivers to spawn. There, the females
dropped their adhesive eggs that attached to rocks, gravel or woody
debris and hatched within a week. Those spawning runs could extend far
upstream. Sturgeon bones have been found in the 800-year-old trash pits
of Native Americans living along the Yadkin River in North Carolina,
300 miles from the ocean.
is an ancient fish, experts believe, a survivor of the Ice Age and
beyond. They are considered to be the most primitive of bony
fish, with origins dating back 120 million years.
they almost didn’t make through the 20th century. Prized for their
fleshy white meat and abundance of roe, the sturgeon supported a
thriving fishery. One researcher likened the harvest of sturgeon at the
turn of the century to clear-cutting a forest. In the late 1800s, four
to five railroad cars a day brought sturgeon caviar into New York City.
In less than a decade, the fishery collapsed at a place called Caviar
Point, N.J. Other places soon followed.
Industrial Revolution added to the damage by destroying the sturgeon’s
spawning habitat on many rivers or by blocking its spawning runs with
improved a little after the federal Clean Water Act of 1973. Sturgeon
can live for 50 years or more, but they are late bloomers when it comes
to reproduction, which makes population recovery slow. And there are
still problems on many rivers, where poorly oxygenated water and
siltation because of dredging, agricultural runoff and other factors
have impeded the survival of eggs. What’s more, the shrinking of
freshwater habitat is causing problems for juveniles, which spend up to
six years in their natal rivers and are intolerant of saltwater. Rising
sea levels because of climate change may also have increased rivers’
Spruill of Hamstead grew up on Albemarle Sound, where the Atlantic
and the related shortnose sturgeon have lived thousands of years
and were part of the commercial fishing heritage of his family.
perhaps partly due to no restrictions on their catches, there was a
collapse of the populations of both sturgeon species in North Carolina
in the late 1940s or early 1950s,” he recently told the Marine
Fisheries Commission in support of the Atlantic sturgeon's listing. The
shortnose sturgeon is already listed as endangered.
story is the same around the world for the various species of
sturgeon. The Washington-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership
reported in 2010 that 85 percent of sturgeon populations worldwide
were at risk of becoming extinct.
some U.S. states, Atlantic sturgeon populations have plummeted to 99
percent of their historic levels. The National Marine Fisheries Service
said in its ESA listing proposal that the populations in the Carolinas
are probably at less than 3 percent of those levels.
“None of the populations are large or stable enough … to provide any
level of certainty for continued existence,” the proposal concluded.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)