An interstate commission that helps manage the Potomac River wants something old returned to the river: Atlantic sturgeon.
The Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin recently submitted a petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service with a blunt message: "We need a sturgeon stocking program!"
The petition laments that the last capture of an adult Atlantic sturgeon on the Potomac River was in 1970 and any remnant population — if there is one — is so low that it's unlikely to rebuild on its own.
Once abundant, sturgeon were heavily fished in the late 1800s, and their population never recovered. In February 2012, the NMFS declared them to be an endangered species.
ICPRB officials are worried that the listing may hinder programs to restore the giant, long-lived fish to the Potomac as well as Maryland.
Sturgeon are an anadromous species, which means that they live most of their lives in the ocean but return to their native freshwater rivers to spawn. But it is likely that there are no longer any fish to return to the Potomac, which is why the ICPRB wants a stocking program to bring them back.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has about 43 adult sturgeon, most of which were captured from the Bay, that could be used as broodstock for a hatchery program — something state biologists were considering until the fish was listed as endangered.
"We have already got the fish. We have already got the facilities," said Jim Cummins, director of the commission's Living Resource Section. "We are not talking about a lot of money."
Because the fish is endangered, no decision may be made about a stocking program until the NMFS develops a sturgeon recovery plan, which is not expected until later this year.
The NMFS has historically considered stocking a last resort for endangered species. And because all of the fish held by Maryland are from rivers in other states, any stocking initiative would have to use nonnative fish. In the past, NMFS biologists have expressed concern that such hatchery fish could interfere with natural sturgeon in the James River, the only Bay tributary known to still have a breeding population.
Last year, Maryland biologists sought to release four sturgeon captured in the Bay a few months before the species was listed as endangered because they were unable to get them to eat and feared they would die.
Their request was refused by the NMFS because of concern they might have picked up a pathogen in the hatchery, said Brian Richardson, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Ultimately, biologists were able to get the sturgeon to eat and they survived, but the incident reinforced doubts that any stocking proposal would win approval. "I'm skeptical that if sturgeon stay listed that anybody is going to be allowed to do any hatchery-based restoration efforts," said Steve Minkkinen, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Maryland Fisheries Resource Office and is a longtime proponent of Bay sturgeon restoration.
Some biologists and fishery managers believe the sturgeon population, though low, should be listed as threatened rather than endangered. A threatened listing typically carries fewer restrictions.
That belief contributed to a decision last year by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate body that regulates migratory East Coast fish, to move up its next sturgeon stock assessment, which is now slated to be completed by the end of 2014.
If the stock assessment finds more fish than thought, it could lead to a change in the status of the fish.
Richardson said that Maryland plans to continue holding fish while the ASMFC completes its stock assessment. "We are still kind of shaking this out as far as where we are going," he said. "As long as we don't have to expend a great deal of money, we are going to continue to maintain them and at least give us the option to try something in the future if it ends up being appropriate."