In an attempt to halt a continued stock decline, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is calling for a closure of the last remaining Atlantic sturgeon fisheries along the East Coast.

The commission's Atlantic Sturgeon Management Board recommended a two-year moratorium on sturgeon harvests to protect the Hudson River stock, the last major population along the coast outside Canada.

"If they shut down - and there is some indication they will - that really protects the last remaining self-sustaining stock on the East Coast," said John Field, anadromous species coordinator at the ASMFC.

New York and New Jersey fishermen continue to take several hundred of the Hudson River fish each year. Outside those two states, the only other state reporting Atlantic sturgeon catches last year was Georgia, where six fish were caught.

The call for a moratorium was spurred by a continued drop in juvenile reproduction, which has fallen to less than 5,000 a year. In addition, according to the ASMFC, the present 7-foot minimum catch size for females is thought to be protecting only about half of the mature females. Also, the ratio of males to females has fallen from 6-to-1 to 3-to-1, an indication that the number of males is declining.

"We are seeing, in essence, a stock in free fall," Field said.

The ASMFC is a compact of East Coast states that cooperatively develops management plans for species that migrate along the coast.

Some people in the Bay region are contemplating a stocking program to help rebuild the Chesapeake stock. If that were to happen, it is likely that the hatchery program would have to rely on Hudson River fish. No mature Atlantic sturgeon has been caught in the Bay since 1979, though juvenile sturgeon are occasionally found - fishermen have caught two in their nets so far this year.

Sturgeon are the Bay's largest and most long-lived fish, growing up to 800 pounds and living as long as 60 years. They were once abundant in the Bay, but declined dramatically early this century, largely as the result of overfishing, the damming of rivers and degradation of habitat.

Sturgeon are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because females typically do not mature until they are at least 15 years old, and they produce far fewer eggs than other fish. Sturgeon are an anadromous fish that spend most of their life in brackish or salt water, but return to coastal rivers to spawn.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are offering a $100 reward for live sturgeon caught in the Bay. The captured fish will be tagged and released by USF&WS biologists.

Anyone who catches, or sights, a sturgeon in the Bay is asked to call the USF&WS Sturgeon Information Hotline at 1-800-448-8322.