One morning in early July, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources truck loaded with large fish tanks backed up to a boat landing along the Nanticoke River. Some fish from the tanks were dipped by net and released. Large hoses were then hooked to the tanks, sending a flood of additional fish into the river. In a matter or minutes, there were more Atlantic sturgeon - a relic of the age of dinosaurs - in the Nanticoke than anyone had seen in decades.
"We'll see how it goes," said Jorgen Skjeveland, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Fisheries Resource Office in Annapolis, as the fish poured into the river. "Hopefully, something good will come if it."
Indeed, if the more than 3,000 sturgeon released July 8 prove able to survive, it will help clear the way for a full-scale sturgeon restoration project in the Bay.
Atlantic sturgeon were once the Bay's largest fish, capable of growing to 14 feet and 800 pounds. They supported a fishery that used both their meat and eggs - called roe - from Colonial times until the early part of this century. But they never recovered from heavy fishing pressure placed them on at the end of the 1800s. While migrating juveniles are sometimes seen in the Bay, no reproducing sturgeon has been found in the Chesapeake since 1979, leading many to conclude that the native stock has been wiped out.
The year-old fish released in the Nanticoke were raised in the USF&WS's Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar, Pa., from eggs removed from Hudson River sturgeon. All the fish were marked with a 1 millimeter coded wire tag so scientists can identify the stocked sturgeon in the future. In addition, transmitters were attached to a half dozen fish. The transmitters will operate for about 60 days, during which time scientists will track the sturgeons' movements to learn what type of water conditions and habitats they prefer.
By identifying popular hangouts, scientists will be able to periodically collect sturgeon from the water to see how quickly they are growing and - most importantly - whether they are surviving or just turning into food for other river dwellers. It's critical information to resource managers if there is to be a sustained reintroduction effort, said David Secor, a scientist with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
"We've got to be able to recover these fish again," said Secor, who is being funded by the National Biological Service to track the fish fitted with transmitters. "If we can't recapture them, I think the whole recovery is on shaky ground."
An even more critical question for long-term restoration is whether there will be a supply of fish in the future. All the eggs for the project have come from the Hudson River because it has the only self-sustaining Atlantic sturgeon stock along the U.S. East Coast.
But in the face of a continued population decline, New York officials closed the Hudson River to sturgeon fishing this year. It is unclear whether they will allow Hudson fish to be removed to help restore sturgeon to the Chesapeake Bay.
"If we can't get fish from the Hudson, we're essentially out of business," said Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the USF&WS.
The USF&WS has been using Hudson River fish the last few years to learn hatchery techniques for sturgeon at their Lamar facility. Because there is no stocking program in the Hudson, the federal agency has given the fish to the Maryland DNR, which has been interested in trying to restore sturgeon to the Bay.
Another 5,000 fish, now being reared at the hatchery, are to be released into the Nanticoke this fall so scientists can see how they fare over the winter. After that, nothing is certain.
Ben Florence, program director for aquaculture and hatcheries with the DNR, said he hoped to work with biologists at the Lamar hatchery to develop new spawning techniques to ensure future sturgeon supplies. Eggs are now surgically removed from females, and the fish are then sewed up. The operation takes its toll, though, as it can make the adult fish more susceptible to infection.
Florence said that by experimenting with different hormones, it might be possible to induce the release of eggs without an operation. "We think by improving our culture techniques, particularly spawning techniques, that we'll have less impacts on wild stocks and perhaps be able to release wild fish back into the environment after we use them," Florence said.
The DNR developed similar techniques in its hatcheries to bolster striped bass- and shad-stocking programs in the past.
Like striped bass and shad, sturgeon are an anadromous fish which is spawned in fresh water, but spends most of its life migrating along the coast before returning to its native river to spawn.
The fish released in the Nanticoke are expected to remain in the river for a year or more before heading for the ocean. But biologists will need patience to see if their efforts bear fruit. Unlike striped bass and shad, which return to spawn in four or five years, female sturgeon do not begin spawning until they are about 15. That means the year-old fish released this year probably will not return to spawn until about 2010 - and then only if they successfully evade predators, fishing nets, boats and other hazards.
Sturgeon are primitive fish that date back at least 70 million years and possibly twice that. Some scientists refer to them as the fish that "swam with the dinosaurs." They are not covered by scales, but rather with five rows of bony shields, called scutes. The Atlantic sturgeon has a long, hard snout and four whisker-like sensory barbels that project from near the mouth.
Sturgeon are perhaps best known for their habit of occasionally jumping completely out of the water for unknown reasons. Colonial records report several incidents of giant sturgeons landing in ships.
Shortly after they were placed in the Nanticoke, one of the sturgeon did leap above the waves. "You ought to see a big one jump," Skjeveland said. "That's much more exciting."