NOAA Moves to Protect Endangered Atlantic Sturgeon

One of the Bay’s largest and oldest fish is getting some new protection from the federal government.

On Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries designated critical habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon.

The sturgeon is a huge species; females can grow to be 300 pounds, males 140 pounds, and they can be 14 feet long. It’s also an incredibly old species, having first appeared in the fossil record 200 million years ago. An individual fish can live up to 60 years.

Maryland DNR’s Anadromous Restoration Project nets one of the largest sturgeons to date, weighing 181 pounds and measuring 7 feet 6 inches long.

The new critical habitat designation means federal agencies must consult NOAA Fisheries about any activities that could affect the sturgeons’ critical habitat. That habitat stretches over 3,968 miles of coastal rivers from Maine to Florida, including several on the Bay.

The Atlantic sturgeon was listed as an endangered species on the Chesapeake Bay, along with other mid-Atlantic areas. That’s because sturgeon were harvested heavily in the twentieth century, particularly for their eggs used for caviar. Overfishing thinned the population, and a coast-wide moratorium on fishing Atlantic sturgeon has been in effect since 1998.

It travels to rivers to spawn, with males returning annually, but females only coming back to spawn every three to five years. Virginia Bay scientists have found a spawning population in the Jamies River, the upper tributaries of the York River, the Rappahannock, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is tracking sturgeon in the Pocomoke, Nanticoke and Choptank rivers.

“Our focus now will be on providing guidance to federal agencies to help them carry out their actions efficiently and effectively while minimizing impacts to habitat that is critical to these endangered and threatened populations of sturgeon,” says Samuel D. Rauch III, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at NOAA Fisheries.

 NOAA/Robert Michelson
NOAA/Robert Michelson

Early this year, Chesapeake Bay Magazine delved into this fascinating species, and its elusive presence in the Bay. To read Wendy Mitman Clarke’s story on efforts to tag and track Atlantic sturgeon spawning in the Bay, click here.

-Meg Walburn Viviano