Sturgeon Return to the Chesapeake Bay!


Matt Balazik tagging an Atlantic sturgeon

    Back in 1997 a young fisheries biologist made a startling discovery.  He spotted some Atlantic sturgeon swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

     The biologist was astounded because sturgeon were thought to have completely disappeared from the Bay.  Although decades before, tens of thousands of these mighty fish regularly swam up the Chesapeake from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn, no sturgeon had been seen in the Bay for many years.  

     The sturgeon that biologist Dave Secor spotted that day 17 years ago were juveniles.  Therefore, they could not have swum into the Bay from the ocean.  Instead, they must have been born right there, in the Bay.  That meant that at least some sturgeon were spawning in the Bay, that a recovery of at least some size must be underway.  

     Secor and his colleagues were eager to know where in the Bay the sturgeon were spawning.  If the spawning grounds could be found, the scientists reasoned, then perhaps these grounds could be protected, and the sturgeon’s recovery in the Bay strengthened.  

     Restoration of sturgeon in the Chesapeake would indeed be cause for celebration.  A truly ancient species, the sturgeon has been around since long before the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.   Like the salmon, the sturgeon returns to its natal waters to spawn.  But unlike the salmon, which dies  soon after spawning, the sturgeon spawns repeatedly over its 60-year lifespan.  The mighty sturgeon can reach a length of 14 feet and weigh as much as 800 pounds.   Most of the sturgeon’s life is spent in the Atlantic Ocean, where it travels up and down the shelf break, eating worms and crustaceans it plows up from the bottom with its snout. 

     Prized for its flesh and for the caviar made from its roe, the sturgeon was once heavily fished in the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay’s sturgeon fishing industry peaked in the 1890s, and no one alive today has witnessed a healthy run of sturgeon in the Bay.  

     The search for the sturgeon’s spawning grounds is challenging because there are so few of them.  But thanks to a $1.75 million grant last year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the scientists are getting support for their efforts.  

     Scientists have tagged 240 sturgeon with acoustic transmitters.  Each tag emits a coded sound once per minute, and the sounds are recorded whenever a sturgeon passes within range of a receiver.    And, in addition to assistance from NOAA, the scientists are also aided in their efforts by the U.S. Navy, which has installed 70 receivers, mostly attached to Coast Guard buoys throughout the lower Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and out into the Atlantic.  The buoys record environmental data as well, which allows scientists to correlate sturgeon activity with water conditions.  This information will be especially helpful in enabling scientists to understand how sensitive sturgeon are to low oxygen levels that plague the Bay every summer.

     Federal agencies are required to minimize interactions with endangered species, notes Navy biologist Carter Watterson, who regularly sends Secor and his colleagues the tracking data from the buoys.  ”Once we know where and when sturgeon are utilizing the Bay,” Watterson explains,  ”we can work to minimize any impact we have on the species.”–April Moore 


3 Responses to “Sturgeon Return to the Chesapeake Bay!”

  1. Todd Waymon Says:

    Fascinating! And a good sign! I’m going sailing on the Bay Thursday thru Sunday and will keep an eye out – you’ve given me a new topic of conversation!

  2. James Says:

    Glad to hear that Federal Agencies seem committed in their efforts to lessen the impact that civilization has on the health and proliferation of the mighty sturgeon.

  3. Ira Shorr Says:

    Thanks for good news April!

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