Harsh winter weather indirectly took a toll on the Chesapeake Bay’s sturgeon, as Maryland biologists say nine of their large captive fish died during a power outage caused by a winter storm.

The incident happened at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory on the Eastern Shore during the long President’s Day weekend in February.

Ironically, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources had moved a number of its several dozen captive sturgeon to the lab to help diversify the locations where they are held and thereby protect them from malfunctions and other unpredictable problems.

Most of the state’s sturgeon are kept at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Lab, and at a facility at NRG Energy’s

Chalk Point Generating Plant on the Patuxent River.

A winter storm knocked out the main power and a backup system at the Oxford Lab, said Brian Richardson, a biologist who oversees the DNR’s sturgeon program.

The pumps for the tanks the sturgeon were kept in stopped working, water levels dropped and the sturgeon ultimately froze.

“We didn’t have any knowledge about it at the time, and they were gone when we came back,” Richardson said. “We’re looking at ways to address the problem.” That could include video surveillance or enhanced alarm systems.

The captive sturgeon ranged from 3 feet to 5 feet in length, and were 9–10 years old.

The state has been building up a small captive population consisting of several dozen large fish for nearly two decades. The fish are primarily used for research to help with sturgeon recovery efforts, but the state has also slowly been building a genetically diverse population that could be used to stock sturgeon in rivers, if that became necessary.

Although sturgeon are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the captive sturgeon were not covered, as several of the fish were brought to Maryland from Canada for research, and the others were captured in the Bay before the endangered species listing.

Also, because three of the fish were from Canada, their loss would not necessarily be a setback for any potential future stocking, Richardson said. Being from so far away, those fish were always intended for research, not stocking.