In the hazy past of early settlement history, a giant fish from another age - the time of dinosaurs - briefly played a critical role in the economic and physical survival of the colony that represented England's toehold in North America.
Before there was tobacco, sturgeon eggs were the leading "cash crop" from Jamestown, shipped to meet England's appetite for caviar. And in the food-short colony, survival on several occasions depended on stockpiles of sturgeon meat.
The fish after all, was abundant: John Smith wrote that "no place affords more plenty of sturgeon." Of course, Smith was a tireless promoter of New World wealth, and had a reputation for exaggeration. But his claim was backed up by Captain Christopher Newport who in 1607 observed that the James River "abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent."
Centuries later, in the late 1800s, sturgeon became one of the most valuable fisheries in the Bay and along the East Coast, supplying European demand for caviar and sturgeon meat. Bay sturgeon landings peaked at 725,000 pounds in 1890. But the fish are so slow to reproduce - it takes them more than a decade to reach maturity - that some biologists say those large catches were more like mining than fishing; the sturgeon never had a chance to replace themselves.
By 1920, the catch fell to 22,800 pounds. The sturgeon stock remains so depleted that few people associate the species - the largest of all Chesapeake fish - with the Bay.
"Right now, they are rarely observed in the Bay, despite intensive fisheries and monitoring activities," said David Secor, a biologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. "I suspect that this is a species that should be listed as endangered."
Last fall, Secor organized a workshop for interested biologists in the Bay region to ponder what - if anything - could be done to restore the fish that had once helped the early colonists.
Proponents see the sturgeon as an ultimate "indicator species" for Bay health; a long-lived fish whose survival would reflect the ability to maintain habitat quality over decades. Sturgeon would be particularly valuable in that regard because they primarily feed on bottom-dwelling benthic organisms, such as worms and mussels. Those species are some of the most stressed creatures in the Chesapeake because of chronic low-oxygen conditions on the Bay bottom that result from nutrient pollution.
"If you can get behind restoration of the Atlantic sturgeon, you're buying into a long-term commitment to the Chesapeake Bay," said Ron Klauda, who heads the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Chesapeake Bay Research and Monitoring Division. "It's a way of looking much farther down the road, not just to the year 1997 or the year 2000, like a lot of our Bay restoration goals."
But right now, the status of the Atlantic sturgeon in the Bay is dismal.
The last egg-laden female recorded in Maryland was found in the Nanticoke River in 1972. The few juvenile sturgeon observed since then during routine fish surveys are thought to have migrated into the Bay from elsewhere.
The situation in Virginia is only slightly better. During the mid-1970s, several recently hatched sturgeon were captured in the James and York Rivers during trawl surveys conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, an indication of some reproduction at that time. In the past few years, two large female Atlantic sturgeon were found dead on the banks of the James River and the Eastern Shore.
"We're just about at ground zero for sturgeon," said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Of the two kinds of sturgeon native to the Bay, the Atlantic sturgeon is the species that is in the best shape. The other species, the shortnose sturgeon, is a federally listed endangered species which hasn't been seen in the Bay since around the turn of the century. Worldwide, there are 26 species of sturgeon, and almost all of them are in trouble.)
Restoring sturgeon, many worry, would require more patience and long-term commitment than most government agencies - and people - have. While restoration of some fish can take place in, say, the time it takes to pay off a car loan, the commitment to sturgeon would be more like a mortgage.
The native Bay population is either gone or severely depleted, so biologists who attended the workshop last fall generally agreed that sturgeon restoration would depend on getting eggs from someplace else along the coast, rearing them in a hatchery, releasing the young fish into the Bay, and waiting for them to return to spawn.
Unlike shad or striped bass that return in three to five years to spawn, a female sturgeon probably would not return to the Bay until she was around 15 years old. In some places farther north, it may take them as long as 20 years to mature. To the south, a bit less. And even then, scientists aren't really sure that sturgeon even come back to their native rivers to spawn as other anadromous fish do.
Also, once a female reaches maturity, she does not reproduce every year, but only once every two to six years. And, relative to its body weight, a female sturgeon deposits far fewer eggs than many other species, such as shad or striped bass. All this means that if the sturgeon did return to spawn, a full recovery would be a slow process.
"There is no single, simple solution, nor are any short-term solutions likely," said a management plan written by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a multistate compact that jointly manages coastal migratory fish species. Because the fish take so long to mature and their populations are at such low numbers, the plan said it would take a minimum of three generations - or at least 45 years - for the stock to recover.
That time-frame may create one of the highest hurdles for recovery - money. Atlantic surgeon are in a sort of management limbo. Though biologists consider the sturgeon to be severely depleted, it is not listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government - small numbers are still caught along the coast, primarily in the Hudson River. Because they are not threatened or endangered, the federal government is not obligated to spend money writing and implementing a recovery plan for the species.
States, meanwhile, are reluctant to spend money from recreational and commercial fishing licenses - the main source of funding for fish and shellfish management - on a species that is not likely to have any recreational or commercial value for decades.
"With Atlantic sturgeon - my gosh - when you are talking [so many] years to maturity, that's a very difficult time span to justify a big program," said Ben Florence, program director for aquaculture and hatcheries at the Maryland DNR. "I wouldn't be around to take credit for it," he joked. If the DNR ever took on such a project, Florence said, officials would prefer to have funding come from the state's general fund because the restoration would have to be viewed as a "general benefit" to the whole state rather than a specific user group.
"I'm excited about the idea, but I'm afraid that it's very difficult to spend a lot of public monies on something that you can't show benefit for fairly quickly," he said.
Nonetheless, he and others agree that interest in restoring sturgeon is high. This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to use boats equipped with state-of-the-art fish finders to survey potential sturgeon habitats in the Bay that may have been missed by other fish surveys, which are targeted more toward commercial and recreational species.
If they find a mature female, they will take it to the USF&WS Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar, Pa., which has been developing Atlantic sturgeon hatchery techniques using Hudson River stock. The juveniles will then be returned to the Bay.
Meanwhile, Secor plans to begin studying the Bay to learn more about the amount of suitable habitat that exists for sturgeon - information that would be needed if any of the Bay states decides to seriously pursue a sturgeon restoration effort.
But moving beyond this piecemeal approach to a more coordinated restoration effort would require a stronger financial commitment. "Virginia and Maryland have expressed an interest," St. Pierre said, "But obviously in this day and age when everybody's budget is tight, you have to go with your bread-and-butter fish."
Secor believes that sturgeon restoration could be justified based on its economic potential, as it could eventually result in a viable commercial fishery in the Bay. "We have to have a long-term outlook on this," Secor said. "It would be like planting timber. You go out and plant trees. You don't expect to harvest those trees for 10 to 20 years."
Sturgeon meat is tasty, Secor said, and the caviar made from the eggs can net $150 to $200 a pound. Most caviar is now imported from Russia, but the hatchery program that supports the Caspian Sea sturgeon stocks is "falling apart," Secor said. "So it's very likely that we are going to see caviar prices going up."
If restored, sturgeon could eventually become a recreational species, too. A cousin, the white sturgeon, is a popular species for fishermen on the West Coast.
Finding sport in catching sturgeon dates back to the Indians. Settlers reported that the natives would lasso a sturgeon by the tail and hang on. Often, the flailing fish would pull the man underwater. Anyone who would not let go until - through swimming, diving and wading - he had tired the sturgeon was regarded as "a brave fellow," one early settler noted. Because the sturgeon likely weighed as much or more as the man, that may have been an understatement.
(Catching them wasn't always difficult. Sturgeon are not only big, but well-known for their jumping ability. Colonial reports are full of stories of sturgeon jumping into English boats or in an Indian canoe. During the Revolutionary War, an American officer died of injuries when a sturgeon jumped out of the Potomac and landed on him while he was rowing across.)
But Secor and others say the motive behind any sturgeon restoration project that takes place would be more aesthetic than economic.
"You can make a case for sturgeon supporting a valuable commercial and recreational fishery," said Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, "but I don't think that's the best way to look at sturgeon restoration, frankly. It's almost too limiting and too one-dimensional.
"I think you look at sturgeon more like people look at whales - as one of the largest natural components of the biota in the system. I view sturgeon as kind of the giant redwoods of the Chesapeake. They are long-lived, slow-growing but dominant features of the landscape, and highly valuable just being there."
Although an 18-foot sturgeon was claimed in 1842, the largest documented Atlantic sturgeon was a 14-foot female, weighing 811 pounds, captured in St. John's River, New Brunswick, in 1924. It was 60 years old. Adult females average about 8 feet in length; adult males generally are a couple of feet shorter. Adults can weigh from about 100 pounds to several hundred pounds.
"When people are introduced firsthand to their size, peculiar appearance, and inquisitive behavior, then they may want to look out on Bay waters and know that there are still sturgeon lurking in the depths," Secor said.
Some biologists like to refer to it as the fish that "swam with the dinosaurs" because it dates back at least 70 million years, and possibly twice that. It is not covered by scales, but rather with five rows of bony shields, called scutes. It has a long, hard snout and four whisker-like sensory barbels that project from its mouth.
"Once you see a sturgeon, you never forget it," DNR's Klauda said. "It definitely looks like a dinosaur fish."
And people do seem to want to see them.
This spring, USF&WS biologists from the Lamar facility took some hatchery-raised sturgeon to a sports show in a Williamsport, Pa.-area mall. The fish were a hit. Over the course of several days, more than 200,000 people stood in lines that stretched from one end of the mall to the other to see the sturgeon.
They are a popular species at the hatchery, too, where they swim in 20-foot circular tanks. "You can pat the top of the water and these fish come up to you, and you can stroke them like a cow," St. Pierre said. "They're just amazing critters. They're something worth saving."