Atlantic sturgeon, the largest fish native to the Chesapeake, may be headed to the federal endangered species list.
A scientific review panel has recommended that the Bay population of the giant fish, along with those native to the New York Bight and the Carolinas, be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future; an endangered species is one that may become extinct.
The panel of federal scientists said there was more than a 50 percent chance the sturgeon in those three areas would become endangered within the next 20 years.
The panel’s report indicates that scientists believe the outlook for sturgeon has taken a turn for the worse in less than a decade. In 1998, scientists conducted a similar review after being petitioned by an environmental group but concluded that the sturgeon were neither threatened nor endangered.
At the time, federal agencies said a 40-year harvest moratorium along the East Coast, which had just been imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, should help sturgeon come back.
The new review team, in a report made public in April, said most subpopulations showed no sign of recovery, and that recent information suggests bycatch in other fisheries, poaching, ship strikes and poor water quality have had “substantial impacts” on sturgeon populations.
“The lack of recovery in these subpopulations may be attributed to many years of habitat degradation and the continued take of Atlantic sturgeon as bycatch,” the report said.
The recommendation is not final. It goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, where officials are expected to decide this summer whether to accept the finding.
If so, it would propose the action in the Federal Register and take public comments before a final decision is made. Any proposal would likely also outline specific actions aimed at protecting the species.
Sturgeon can grow up to 14 feet long, weigh more than 800 pounds and live up to 60 years. They are an anadromous fish, spawning in freshwater rivers but spending most of their lives swimming along the coast until returning to their native rivers to reproduce.
Sturgeon were once abundant in the Bay and other coastal areas. They were one of the earliest “cash crops” exported from the Jamestown settlement to England.
The fish were once the target of a major fishery in the Bay and along the coast, but they take so long to reproduce—females don’t mature for more than a decade—that their population was unable to withstand the pressure and was nearly wiped out in the early part of the last century.
In the Bay, the report suggested that the dramatic decline in sturgeon populations stemmed from overharvests in the 1890s, and recovery was likely impeded by poor water quality thereafter. Chronic low-oxygen conditions in the last half century have likely been detrimental to sturgeon, the report said. It also noted that current Bay cleanup goals were designed in part to help sturgeon, and the fish’s recovery would be aided if those goals are met.
Historically, each major river along the East Coast—and in the Bay— was thought to have had its own unique subpopulation of sturgeon.
In the Chesapeake, only the James River is still certain to supports a unique sturgeon population the panel concluded, citing DNA analyses of fish from the river, the presence of recently hatched “young of year” sturgeon, and the occasional discovery of dead mature females during spawning season.
The panel held out the possibility that the York may also have a unique population, but said the evidence was much less conclusive.
The review team estimated that the James population likely consists of fewer than 300 spawning adults and therefore had a “moderately high risk” of becoming endangered within the next 20 years.
Commercial bycatch was considered a threat for the James fish, as was both historic and ongoing dredging in the river. Ship strikes are also a concern as an average of five Atlantic sturgeon a year are hit by boats in the river. It also noted that in 1998–99, law enforcement agencies in Virginia arrested fishermen who had poached 95 sturgeon in the James and Poquoson rivers, and that a black market for sturgeon continues to operate.
The Chesapeake Bay was one of five “distinct population segments”—which are genetically and geographically distinct—along the East Coast. The others were the Gulf of Maine, New York Bight, the Carolina and South Atlantic.
The panel said it did not have enough information to make a full assessment of the Gulf of Maine and South Atlantic population segments.