The endangered Atlantic sturgeon just got a double boost in Virginia as NOAA awarded federal funds to continue restoration efforts here and also designated the Chesapeake Bay “critical habitat” for the species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is giving the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries $378,666 for fiscal year 2018 to locate and characterize key sturgeon habitat within the bay’s river systems.
The award follows nearly $357,000 in FY2016 and more than $365,000 in FY2017 in what’s known as species recovery grants for Atlantic sturgeon.
And it’s part of $5.8 million in grants just awarded for endangered or threatened species in the greater Atlantic, from shellfish to whales.
“Helping these species recover means bringing partners to the table to tackle critical conservation challenges at the local level,” said Donna Wieting, director of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, in a statement.
Partners include the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, which has been studying sturgeon for years. Researchers catch and implant the fish with transponders to track their movements and learn how sturgeon use different habitats at different life stages, when and where they go, how their use of the bay changes during the year and how juvenile sturgeon use the bay differently than adults.
“With these data and all of this effort, we are continuing to add to the knowledge of the fishes,” said Eric Hilton, an internationally recognized sturgeon expert at VIMS. “Such basic information as what rivers are currently being used for reproduction by sturgeons, and when and where. These are critical data for management and protection of the species.”
The new grant will go to continue the tagging work, in conjunction with Game and Inland Fisheries and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Researchers have been tagging in the James and York rivers, and will look for subadults using the Rappahannock, Hilton said.
The Chesapeake Bay is considered a “distinct population segment” of Atlantic sturgeon. Like other populations, it’s in danger of extinction, NOAA Fisheries says, because of its precipitous and prolonged drop in numbers, the limited amount of spawning and persistent impacts and threats to its survival.
Before 1890 and the onset of the sturgeon fishery, estimates are that about 20,000 adult females inhabited the bay and its tributaries. Today, the spawning population in the James River is estimated at less than 300 adults. There’s some historical evidence that the Rappahannock, Potomac and Susquehanna also were spawning rivers.
Threats to sturgeon include accidental harvest by fishermen, dredging, polluted habitat and vessel strikes. Between 2005 and 2007, 11 Atlantic sturgeon were reported as hit by vessels in the James.
“The general sense, based on our work and other research and programs, is that the population is relatively stable over the last 20 years or so,” said Hilton. “But this is, of course, very much lower than sturgeon numbers in a historical sense.”
Atlantic sturgeon take a long time to mature — up to 15 years for females, and 10 years for males. They spawn only once every few years.
Baby sturgeon hatch out in freshwater rivers, where they stay for several years until they mature. Then they migrate to the ocean, returning to freshwater rivers to lay their eggs and begin the cycle again.
Sturgeon swam with dinosaurs 85 million years ago, and look like they belong in the Cretaceous, with five rows of bony ridges from head to tail, bony plates instead of scales, a toothless, sucking mouth, a shark-like tail and a snout like an arrowhead.
They’ve been called the “founding fish” of historic Jamestown, and accounts from that time claim they could grow to 14 feet or more and weigh up to 800 pounds. Sturgeon in the bay today tend to reach 8 or 9 feet. The fish can live about 60 years, and is considered the biggest, longest-living creature in Atlantic coastal rivers.
Designating the Chesapeake as critical habitat for sturgeon doesn’t impose any new restrictions or management measures for recreational or commercial fishing, NOAA says.
But it does mean that if a federal agency funds or is involved in activities that might impact sturgeon, it must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or minimize any impacts on the species.
“Our focus now will be on providing guidance to federal agencies to help them carry out their actions efficiently and effectively while minimizing impacts to habitat that is critical to these endangered and threatened populations of sturgeon,” said Samuel Rauch III, a deputy assistant administrator at NOAA Fisheries, in a statement.
Atlantic sturgeon historically inhabited about 38 rivers from Maine to Florida. Of those, scientists say 35 were spawning rivers. Today, sturgeon are found in about 32 of those rivers and spawn in at least 20 of them.
The species was harvested aggressively in the 20th century, when their eggs were valued as caviar. Overfishing led to such an alarming drop in numbers that in 1998 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued a coast-wide ban on their harvest. NOAA Fisheries followed with a ban in federal waters.
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