Atlantic sturgeon stocked in the Nanticoke River last year appear to have survived well - even thrived, judging by their growth - in the Bay, indicating that the Chesapeake offers good habitat for fish released as part of any future recovery effort.

More than 3,000 sturgeon raised at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's hatchery in Lamar, PA, were released into the river by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in July 1996.

All the fish were marked with tags, and the USF&WS, along with the states of Maryland and Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have been paying rewards for any live hatchery sturgeon.

As of early October, 262 tagged fish had been recaptured throughout the Bay and as far south as the North Carolina coast, said David Secor, a biologist with the University of Mary- land's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.

Released fish were of two different size groups, and larger fish were about 6.5 times more likely to survive than smaller ones, Secor said.

"They all grew a lot," noted Jorgen Skjeveland, a biologist with the USF&WS's Fisheries Resources Office in Annapolis. He said fish grew about a foot just from the time of their release in July 1996 to last winter, and more this year. "It seems there is certainly potential in the Chesapeake Bay for these things to do well," he said.

But Skjeveland said reports of the fish may begin to decline as the sturgeon, which usually only stay in rivers and estuaries for one or two years, begin heading out to sea. "As big as they are, they may tend to be heading out now," he said.

It takes Atlantic sturgeon about 15 years to reach maturity, so when the fish leave, they probably won't be seen in the Bay again until about 2010.

Secor said the fact that nearly 10 percent of the released fish were captured in fishermen's nets also shows that any recovery effort will hinge on the cooperation of fishermen. They are easily caught in nets, and while this does not appear to kill or harm the fish, Secor said fishermen need to be encouraged to release the fish alive.

"We've learned that we aren't going to accomplish anything in terms of recovery without their cooperation," Secor said, "because they are so vulnerable to fishing gear."