12 Feb 2015: Report

Atlantic Sturgeon: An Ancient
Fish Struggles Against the Flow

Once abundant in the rivers of eastern North America, the Atlantic sturgeon has suffered a catastrophic crash in its populations. But new protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act are giving reason for hope for one of the world’s oldest fish species.

by ted williams

Water from the iced-over Connecticut River numbed my hands as I cradled a hard, scaleless fish at the U.S. Geological Survey’s anadromous fish laboratory at Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Its back was dark brown, its belly cream. Five rows of bony plates ran the length of its thin body to the shark-like tail. Four barbels covered with taste buds dangled from its flat snout in front of the sucker mouth. At 20 inches it was a baby. Adults can

View Gallery
Atlantic sturgeon

Matt Balazik/VCU Rice Rivers Center
Atlantic sturgeon have large snouts for rooting out bottom-dwelling prey.
measure 14 feet and weigh 800 pounds.

This fish was an Atlantic sturgeon — the largest, longest-lived creature that reproduces in North American rivers collected by the Atlantic. Its species is at least 70 million years senior to my own.

Yet my species threatens it with extinction.

While that threat is still very real, it was reduced on February 6, 2012, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) protected five “distinct population segments” of Atlantic sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act. The Gulf of Maine segment was listed as threatened while the New York Bight, Chesapeake Bay, Carolina, and South Atlantic segments were listed as endangered.

This action has released a torrent of funding that is allowing researchers from Maine to Florida to identify and mitigate human-caused mortality.

Nowhere has the population crash been more catastrophic than in the Delaware River, the East’s longest undammed waterway, draining 13,539 square miles from New York State through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. In the 19th century 75 percent of sturgeon caught in the U.S. came from the Delaware, then known as the “caviar capital of North America.” According to the NMFS, there used to be something like
Silt from watershed development dooms the eggs laid by female Atlantic sturgeon.
180,000 ripe females entering the river in any given year. Now the agency figures there are fewer than 100.

Atlantic sturgeon live in the ocean and spawn and spend their first few years in freshwater. Females don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re about 16, and they lay eggs only every three to five years. So populations can’t rebound quickly. The eggs are sticky, but only for about 30 minutes during which they must adhere to clean substrate. Silt from watershed development dooms them. That’s a problem in the Delaware and range-wide.

In the lower Delaware, the world’s largest freshwater port, sturgeon keep getting killed by ships. “Adults move up the navigation channel,” explains Delaware State University fisheries professor Dewayne Fox. “It’s dredged to 40 feet, and some ships bump on bottom; you can see the scour marks. When you have two ships with 20-foot-diameter propellers passing in opposite directions that takes 25 percent of the channel. We get a lot of animals cut in half.”

More dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will further shrink spawning and nursery habitat by blasting away rock ledge critical to egg and fry development and by causing saltwater to move further upstream where habitat shrinks anyway as the river narrows.

The NMFS has major concerns about the project, warning that “dredge gear used in the Delaware is known to injure or kill Atlantic sturgeon” and that saltwater intrusion may inhibit reproduction.

“And yet NMFS just sat back and let it happen,” says Maya van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit membership outfit dedicated to protection of river and watershed. Her organization challenged the project in court and lost.

But it usually prevails in legal actions. For example, when the NMFS failed to designate “critical habitat” for Atlantic sturgeon for more than two years after the ESA listing, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued, winning a settlement. Critical habitat designation, which by law must happen within a year of listing, is now underway.

To cool the reactor rods of its Salem Nuclear Power Plant in southern New Jersey the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) daily sucks up 3 billion gallons of Delaware River water and with it all manner of fish eggs and
Because Atlantic sturgeon are similar to humans in life span, recovery is slow and easily unnoticed.
juveniles. Adults are crushed against intake screens. According to PSEG’s own figures, the plant annually kills about three billion fish and other organisms, sturgeon included. Converting to a closed-loop system by which river water is re-circulated and cooled by towers would reduce fish mortality by about 95 percent. But this would probably cost $400 to $800 million, and PSEG is loath to make the investment.

The State of New Jersey has allowed the plant to operate without a discharge permit since 2006, making it impossible for van Rossum and her allies to vet permit requirements relevant to fish kills. So the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the New Jersey Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action sued the state, winning a settlement in November under which a permit is now being drafted.



Despite all the threats confronting Atlantic sturgeon, their prognosis is less bleak than previously thought. Because these fish are similar to humans in life span and maturity, recovery is slow and easily unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1998 that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial take — so one wouldn’t expect to see solid evidence of recovery even now, especially in the Delaware where the caviar industry had virtually eliminated the species.

But researchers may be seeing early signs of recovery. Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist Ian Park reports that he and his colleagues are starting to capture sturgeon so small they couldn’t have been spawned outside the Delaware.

For decades, pollution below Philadelphia deprived the river of oxygen in exactly the area young sturgeon most needed it. They died, and adults stopped as if they’d hit a dam. Now thanks to passage of the federal Clean
‘Spawning Atlantic sturgeon are showing up in rivers where they were never thought to exist.’
Water Act in 1972, oxygen levels are up, and the Delaware Basin Commission is pushing for higher water-quality standards.

Commenting on the prognosis elsewhere in the range, Delaware State University’s Fox offers this: “Spawning Atlantic sturgeon are showing up in rivers where they were never thought to exist. People point to the 1998 fishing ban, but it’s also probable that we weren’t looking in the right places.”

Now, with money made available by the Endangered Species Act (ESA), researchers are looking in the right places and, more important, determining human-caused threats and devising mitigation. For example, gillnets set at sea for monkfish and skate turn out to be a major source of sturgeon mortality. So Fox and his team are working with fishermen to devise nets with lighter twine that big sturgeon can break, and larger mesh that smaller fish can pass through.

This kind of research is being driven by the NMFS. While the agency has traditionally been less than aggressive in defense of depleted fish, it may be making progress. “One thing NMFS did that I think is unheard of is that they actually brought on additional staff prior to listing,” says Fox. “Anticipating that listing was going to happen, they pushed the research

View Gallery
Atlantic sturgeon on boat

Jameson Brunkow/James River Association
Researchers capture a sturgeon in Chesapeake Bay, where they were presumed to be wiped out.
community a year in advance to get in our scientific collection permit requests because it was going to take that long to process them. I had my permit the day of the ESA ruling. And I wasn’t alone.”

Moreover, the ability of the NMFS to stop projects like dredging is limited. All it can do is consult with the Corps of Engineers under Section 7 of the ESA. Then, if it determines the species in “jeopardy,” it can merely suggest prudent measures to minimize damage.



For 30 years biologist Tom Savoy of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection told people that Atlantic sturgeon had been extirpated from the Connecticut River 200 years ago. Now, thanks to ESA funding, he’s eating his words. “In the last couple years we’ve seen fish too small to have emigrated from other systems,” he told me. “We’ve surgically implanted acoustic transmitters into larger fish. There’s a lot of mixing between population segments; we’re seeing fish from the Hudson and the Delaware. We had one fish that went to Cape Canaveral, Florida — farther south than they were supposed to go. We’ve really expanded our knowledge of sturgeon. The old story was that young didn’t leave for 6 to 8 years. Now we’re seeing fish leave at 2.”

The sturgeon I caressed at the USGS anadromous fish laboratory was part of an ESA-funded project to determine if reproduction is being compromised by such “endocrine disrupters” as sewage-borne residue from birth-control pills. The bad news: It almost surely is. The good news:
Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient.
Because we know about the threat we may be able to lessen it, perhaps by modifying disposal, sale, or application of at least some of the disrupters.

At the lab I met with biologist Micah Kieffer who is part of an ESA-funded research team studying the Gulf of Maine sturgeon population segment. With acoustic transmitters it has implanted in sturgeon from Maine’s Kennebec River, the team has documented heavy migration into the Bay of Fundy (between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) where fish get eviscerated in tidal hydro-generating turbines. Mortality can be reduced by screens.



“About 15 years ago we declared the Atlantic sturgeon extirpated in the Chesapeake Bay system, and much to my delight we were very wrong ,” says David Secor, fisheries ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “I’ve been with this story for much of my career, and it has taught me a lot of humility. The fish are telling us things we never expected. For instance, this past year we’ve discovered spawning adults in a small Eastern Shore tributary where we’d never have thought to find them and way higher than I’d ever have guessed.” The tributary, the Nanticoke River, is polluted and silted by chicken farms and urban and agricultural development.

Atlantic sturgeon didn’t make it for 70 million years without being resilient. And you don’t have to cut them much slack, as Matt Balazik, a fisheries biologist with Virginia Commonwealth University, has discovered. In 2007 he got a call about a dead Atlantic sturgeon in the James River where everyone “knew” they no longer existed. He never found it, but when he was looking he was astonished to see adult sturgeon breaching. “This was next to the farmhouse I grew up in,” he says. “Sturgeon weren’t there then because we’d have seen them. We saw big fish kills, but never a dead sturgeon. I think improved water quality has helped.”

Everyone also “knew” that sturgeon spawned only in spring. But Balazik suspected otherwise because he was seeing mature fish in fall. He had proof in the fall of 2011 when his team gillnetted an ovulating female. “If

ALSO FROM YALE e360

Fast-Warming Gulf of Maine
Offers Hint of Future for Oceans

Green crab
The waters off the coast of New England are warming more rapidly than almost any other ocean region on earth. Scientists are now studying the resulting ecosystem changes, and their findings could provide a glimpse of the future for many of the world’s coastal communities.
READ MORE
we were sampling just in spring, we’d have said the species is gone,” declares Balazik. “We caught 110 adults this past fall; and we just stopped because we had enough for our population model. ESA funds have been very helpful. Before the listing we were working on a shoestring.”

In the Chesapeake watershed, Atlantic sturgeon runs have recently been discovered in the James, York, Marshyhope, Nanticoke, and Rappahannock rivers. And Balazik thinks they’re in the Potomac.

Keeping Atlantic sturgeon on the planet won’t be easy or cheap; but now we know it’s possible.

Maybe the greatest value of the Endangered Species Act — greater even than information it generates about how and where animals live and the threats they face — is the knowledge that it’s not too late to save them. Emily Dickinson had it right when she wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers.” But it’s also the thing with fins.



POSTED ON 12 Feb 2015 IN Biodiversity Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water Water Asia North America 

POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


ted williamsABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ted Williams, an avid hunter and angler, writes strictly about fish and wildlife conservation. He is a longtime contributor to Audubon magazine and is conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Previously for Yale e360, he reported on new challenges for the recovering brown pelican population and how lead bullets are threatening the California condor.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Chocolate in the Jungle: The Battle
To Save a Disappearing Rainforest


READ MORE

Views: Los Angeles Aims to
Revitalize a Concrete River


READ MORE

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?
READ MORE

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.
READ MORE

Can Virtual Reality Emerge
As a Tool for Conservation?

New advances in technology are sparking efforts to use virtual reality to help people gain a deeper appreciation of environmental challenges. VR experiences, researchers say, can be especially useful in conveying key issues that are slow to develop, such as climate change and extinction.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive problem: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.
READ MORE

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?
READ MORE

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.
READ MORE

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.
READ MORE

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.
READ MORE

A Tiny Pacific Nation Takes the
Lead on Protecting Marine Life

by emma bryce
Unhappy with how regional authorities have failed to protect fish stocks in the Western Pacific, Palau has launched its own bold initiatives – creating a vast marine sanctuary and conducting an experiment designed to reduce bycatch in its once-thriving tuna fishery.
READ MORE

A Rather Bizarre Bivalve Stirs
Controversy in the Puget Sound

by ben goldfarb
The Asian market for the odd-looking giant clams known as geoducks has spawned a growing aquaculture industry in Washington's Puget Sound. But coastal homeowners and some conservationists are concerned about the impact of these farming operations on the sound’s ecosystem.
READ MORE

At 1,066 Feet Above Rainforest,
A View of the Changing Amazon

by daniel grossman
A steel structure in the Amazon, taller than the Eiffel Tower, will soon begin monitoring the atmosphere above the world’s largest tropical forest, providing an international team of scientists with key insights into how this vital region may be affected by global warming.
READ MORE

In Iowa, A Bipartisan Push to
Become Leader in Wind Energy

by roger real drouin
Thanks to state officials who have long supported renewables, Iowa now leads all U.S. states in the percentage of its energy produced from wind. Big companies, including Facebook and Google, are taking notice and cite clean energy as a major reason for locating new facilities there.
READ MORE

Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities
Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

by winifred bird
Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale