Tomorrow, the US will observe Endangered Species Day, an opportunity to “recognize
the national conservation effort to protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats.”
If you’re a regular New England Ocean Odyssey reader, you’re probably already familiar with some of New England’s endangered marine species—Atlantic salmon, leatherback sea turtles, and North Atlantic right whales, for example. You also know how important protecting important habitat areas can be to the conservation and recovery of these incredible animals.
In honor of Endangered Species Day, we thought we’d introduce you to one of New England’s weirder endangered species: sturgeon.
There are actually two species of sturgeon found in New England—shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. Once, sturgeon were so common in east coast streams and coastal waters that settlers considered them a navigational hazard, since they tended to leap out of the water and directly into passing boats.
These once-plentiful sturgeon populations have declined sharply since the 1800s due to overfishing for meat and caviar. Shortnose sturgeon have long been considered endangered throughout their entire range, which stretches from New Brunswick to Florida. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service placed a coast-wide moratorium on catching Atlantic sturgeon in 1998. In 2012, most populations of Atlantic sturgeon were also placed on the endangered species list, with the exception of the Gulf of Maine population, which is listed as threatened.
Sturgeon are basically living fossils and are one of the oldest existing families of bony fish—they’ve been around since the Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago. They don’t have scales, but are covered with bony plates called scutes. Atlantic sturgeon can reach an insane 60 years old and fifteen feet long. Within the past month, a six-foot sturgeon washed up in the Delaware River and a seven-foot sturgeon washed up in the Connecticut River—and both of these fish were just juveniles.
Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they split their time between freshwater and saltwater. Generally, sturgeon remain in brackish streams until they’re about six years old. They then reach maturity in the ocean before returning upstream to spawn. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 15 years old and only spawn once every 2-6 years, meaning populations are slow to grow and recover. Sturgeon larvae also need cool, clean, flowing water to survive, making upstream habitat restoration a crucial part of sturgeon recovery.
Interested in learning more about these endangered fish? NOAA is holding an Endangered Species Day Sturgeon Tweet Chat with NOAA Fisheries Scientist Jason Kahn today from 2-3 p.m. ET. Tweet @NOAAFisheries with the hashtag #ESDaychat to join in.