NPCA Field Report: Help Needed For The Atlantic Sturgeon To Recover

The Atlantic sturgeon is facing long odds to survive due to overfishing and pollution. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

Sturgeon might have graced Captain John Smith's dinner table when he explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1607-1609, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one in the waters of the national historic trail that bears his name today.

The Atlantic sturgeon, an "anadromous" fish that spends most of its life in the ocean but comes to freshwater rivers such as Virginia's James River to spawn, is in danger of vanishing due to overfishing and pollution.

The current Field Report from the National Parks Conservation Association's Mid-Atlantic office notes that "the largest recorded Atlantic sturgeon weighed 811 pounds and stretched 14 feet in length. They once were so plentiful that sturgeon leaping to the surface posed navigational hazards along the James and Susquehanna rivers."

So numerous, and downright big, were the sturgeon, that in the 1890s fishermen were catching nearly 7.5 million pounds of the fish.

"But after decades of overfishing, the population crashed, and in February, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay (Acipenser oxyrinchus) as an endangered species, making it illegal for people to kill or harm the animals or degrade their habitat," the Field Report notes.

While efforts are under way to reverse this decline, the path to recovery is not easy.

"Sediments and pollution in storm water runoff are challenging sturgeon recovery. And while sturgeon fishing has been illegal since 1998, the animals frequently are caught in “sink gill nets” used to catch other species," the NPCA notes. "Among other recovery initiatives, federal and state agencies are working with the James River Association (one of NPCA’s partners in the “Choose Clean Water Coalition”) to restore sturgeon to its native habitat in Virginia.

"The Choose Clean Water coalition’s campaign to reduce storm-water runoff in rivers and streams in the Chesapeake watershed not only will benefit the waters that flow through many national parks, but will also improve the likelihood that this species, already on Earth for some 120 million years, will survive into the future."