The endangered shortnose sturgeon, which has been reported sporadically in the Chesapeake Bay for more than a century, may finally be on the road to recovery.
Thirty years after being declared an endangered species, a draft recovery plan has been completed for the fish, which lives predominantly in large, East Coast rivers and grows to about 4 feet in length.
But don't look for too many sturgeon anytime soon. Largely because the species is slow to reproduce, the plan says the population is unlikely to reach a healthy level before 2024.
The draft recovery plan, released by the National Marine Fisheries Service in August, also leaves it unclear whether the Chesapeake will fit into recovery efforts.
While specific actions are outlined for the shortnose sturgeon populations found in 18 different Atlantic Coast rivers from the Saint John River in Canada to the St. Johns River in Florida, the plan outlines no specific recovery action in the Bay or any of its tributaries.
That's because it's unclear whether any native Chesapeake Bay shortnose sturgeon remain, according to the plan. Shortnose sturgeon have sporadically been seen in the Bay in recent years, but no one knows whether those fish are native to the Chesapeake or whether they are Delaware River fish that entered through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Shortnose sturgeon found in each river are genetically unique, presumably making them slightly more adapted to conditions within that specific waterway. The recovery plan emphasizes efforts to restore shortnose sturgeon in rivers where they are already found.
While the plan states that it's possible that the fish seen in the Bay "represent a distinct population segment," that can't be determined without a genetic analysis. A coastwide genetic assessment is called for in the recovery plan.
"Once we find something, of course we would work to recover them, but they need to find out first," said Marta Nammack, a NMFS adviser to the team of scientists writing the recovery plan.
"The Bay is not written off, because there have been some reports and some captures," Nammack said. "And anytime there are a few that we think are natural fish of the same population segment, we are required by law to try to protect and recover it."
The recovery plan does leave open the possibility of using hatchery-reared fish to restore shortnose sturgeon in rivers where they have vanished, but only in areas where money is available to allow long-term monitoring of the stocking effort.
Historical records for the fish in the Chesapeake date to 1876. But because early fishermen did not distinguish between the shortnose and the larger Atlantic sturgeon, there are little reliable data about the size or extent of their population in the Bay and most other East Coast rivers.
Like Atlantic sturgeon, the shortnose has declined dramatically this century as a result of heavy fishing pressure in the late 1800s, coupled with heavy development and increased pollution in the lower portions of major rivers that are important habitat for the shortnose.
The shortnose were unable withstand such hard fishing pressure because females do not reach maturity until about age 6 in southern rivers and age 12 or older in northern rivers, making it tough for depleted populations to rebound. Shortnose sturgeon females also tend to produce fewer eggs than many other fish species.
Unlike the Atlantic sturgeon, which spawns in fresh water but lives most of its life along the coast, the shortnose sturgeon spends most of its life in its natal river or estuary, though it may regularly venture into saltwater habitats.
Because shortnose sturgeon are so river-specific, there is thought to be little or no breeding among fish from different river systems. As a result, the recovery plan envisions the stocks from different river systems being managed separately.
That also means that the stocks in some rivers could be declared "recovered" before the entire species is removed from the endangered list. The species would be considered recovered when its population was large enough to prevent extinction.
Actions outlined in the recovery plan include improved research about the size and health of shortnose stocks along the coast, important habitats and water quality requirements, and whether the shortnose is affected by other fishing activities; better enforcement of laws prohibiting the illegal catch of the fish; and the gathering of more information about the sturgeon's life history.
In all, the recovery plan outlines 44 specific recovery tasks which, if implemented, would cost millions of dollars, though the plan says it would be impossible to determine an exact cost.
"Everything is going to be a matter of having the funds," Nammack said. "But hopefully, there will be cost-sharing here and there, and we can work with everybody. The states really want to get involved with all these endangered species as much as possible now."
Nammack said comments on the draft recovery plan are being reviewed and a final plan could be completed within six months. But Nammack said some research activity called for in the plan was already under way in some rivers.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic sturgeon, the largest and longest-lived fish native to the Chesapeake, is also being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A Colorado-based environmental group, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, earlier this year filed a petition calling on NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a review of the species.
NMFS and USF&WS are working together to review the petition and are expected to make a decision soon as to whether such a review is warranted. If they agree to the request, it would spur a one-year study after which the agency would make a recommendation about whether the species should be listed as threatened or endangered.
Many scientists believe that the giant fish, which grows to lengths of up to 14 feet, has been wiped out from the Chesapeake, and interest has grown in restoring the species to the Bay in recent years. Last year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources conducted an experimental release of more than 3,000 Atlantic sturgeon, which had been reared at the USF&WS's Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar, PA, into the Nanticoke River.