When Maryland closed the Bay to striped bass fishing for five years, it seemed like an eternity to many avid anglers.
But that closure was a mere tick on the clock compared with what is in store for Atlantic sturgeon, the longest-lived and largest fish native to the Chesapeake.
Acting at its June meeting, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission closed the entire coast to Atlantic sturgeon fishing for the next four decades. It is believed to be the longest fishing closure on record.
“I can’t think of any other managed stock that has taken this type of a long-term hit,” said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who served on the committee that recommended the action. “Even worldwide I can’t think of anything, short of whales.”
The action came after a stock assessment completed for the ASMFC, which manages migratory species along the coast, concluded that only “remnant” populations of the giant fish remain along most of the East Coast.
The sturgeon’s status could become even more grave this summer as the USF&WS and the National Marine Fisheries Service decides whether to list the species under the Endangered Species Act — something that could spur even greater protective efforts. Last year, the Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned the agencies to list the fish because it is “seriously imperiled.”
“We applaud the moratorium on commercial harvesting of Atlantic sturgeon,” said Jasper Carlton, director of the foundation. But he added that action alone is “in no way a reason to decline to list the Atlantic sturgeon.”
Carlton said fishing was “only one issue” facing the sturgeon. Factors such as water quality, habitat and the potential loss of sturgeon in bycatch also need to be addressed. “If they don’t propose it for listing, we would go to court and overturn that,” he said.
Atlantic sturgeon are an ancient species that date back at least 70 million years and are sometimes called the “fish that swam with the dinosaurs.” The are thought to live up to 60 years, and have reached weights of 811 pounds and lengths of 14 feet. They are distinctive in appearance, with bony shields instead of scales, and are known for their habit of leaping out of the water.
Interest in restoring sturgeon in the Bay has grown in recent years, culminating in the release of 3,000 hatchery-raised fish in the Nanticoke River by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in July 1996.
Proponents see sturgeon restoration as a living link to a long-term improvement in the Bay. Sturgeon feed on bottom-dwelling organisms which are often sensitive to poor water quality, and the giant fish are believed to spawn on solid substrate areas of tributaries, many of which have been covered with silt from runoff. As a result, some see them as a potential “indicator species” for the health of the Chesapeake.
Sturgeon were once abundant in the Bay; early colonists relied on their meat for survival. In later centuries, they supported a thriving caviar industry. But intense fishing pressure in the late 1800s nearly wiped out the Bay population.
Their slow reproductivity — sturgeon don’t reach maturity until about age 15, or even later in areas to the north — combined with poor habitat conditions have kept the population from rebounding.
Little evidence of spawning has been seen in the Bay in recent decades, although a 7-foot, 11-inch sturgeon was caught, tagged and released off Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, this spring. Jorgen Skjeveland, a biologist with the USF&WS Maryland Fisheries Resources Office, described the fish as a “potential spawner.”
If so, it could result in the first known spawning of an Atlantic sturgeon in Maryland’s portion of the Bay since 1972. No spawning activity has been confirmed in Virginia since the late 1970s. Still, a dead, egg-filled sturgeon was found off the Norfolk Naval Base this spring and several small fish that may have been spawned in the James River were seen this year and last.
But the Chesapeake stock is so depleted, according to David Secor, a scientist with the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory who has extensively studied sturgeon, that the ASMFC’s fishing moratorium alone will not bring Atlantic sturgeon back to the Bay.
“There are some systems, like our Chesapeake, which will have to be somehow stimulated,” Secor said. That stimulation, he said, would be in the form of stocking and habitat improvements.
Rivers such as the Hudson — which had a fishery until it was closed in 1996 — and rivers in South Carolina and Georgia probably have enough sturgeon that populations would recover under the plan, he said. Delaware Bay, which once had the largest caviar industry on the East Coast, is a “question mark,” Secor said.
Though adults are in short supply, reward programs in Maryland and Virginia for fishermen who catch and hold sturgeon until they could be tagged and released, have turned up hundreds of fish, causing the programs to be ended for lack of money.
“There are lots of fish out there,” noted Albert Spells, a USF&WS biologist in Virginia. But he and others noted that most of the fish were juveniles in the 2– to 4-foot range. Fish that size, they said, were probably not native to the Bay and were visitors from other rivers.
Secor said the fact that sturgeon are so easily caught in nets does raise some concerns. Though sturgeon appear to be hardy and typically survive netting, he said the ASMFC needs to launch an educational effort to inform fishermen how to best handle and release the large fish when they are caught. “Just about any gear out there except eel pots will pick these things up,” he said.
If listed as threatened or endangered, Secor expressed concern that the cooperation of fishermen would be lost because of the Endangered Species Act’s generally tougher guidelines about handling listed species. “If Atlantic sturgeon become listed as endangered, I have no idea how state and federal agencies will deal with that,” Secor said. “It may discourage fishermen’s cooperation with enforcement agencies in monitoring bycatch and ensuring the release of sturgeon.”
ASMFC’s 40-year closure will allow any fish spawned this year to reach maturity — something that takes an average of 20 years along the coast — and then protect 20 years of spawning after that.
The action is not likely to stir as much unrest as the striped bass closure, though. Hardly anyone showed up during a series of meetings the ASMFC held on the issue. When no one showed up at a hearing in New Jersey, the officials walked down the street to the home of a fisherman, who refused to leave the television to testify.
For most of the coast, there should be little immediate impact. In most areas, including the Bay, catching sturgeon less than 7 feet long has been prohibited for years. Hardly anyone sees sturgeon larger than that.
St. Pierre, though, noted that the closure does raise some issues for the future of sturgeon fishing.
“Anyone who was in the sturgeon fishery in 1996 will most likely be dead or certainly not fishing once the sturgeon fishery reopens,” he said. “And that is a concern — that you’re going to lose a part of history here, the know-how, the technique, the netting skills are all going to disappear over such a long period.”