Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus)

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus)
Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus)

The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus) is a member of the Acipenseridae family and is among one of the oldest fish species in the world. Its range extends from New Brunswick, Canada to the eastern coast of Florida. It was in great abundance when the first settlers came to America, but has since declined due to overfishing and water pollution. It is considered threatened, endangered and even extinct in much of its original habitats. The fish can reach sixty years of age, fifteen feet in length and over eight hundred pounds in weight.

Physical appearance

Rather than having true scales, the Atlantic sturgeon has five rows of bony plates known as scutes. Specimens weighing over eight hundred pounds and nearly fifteen feet in length have been recorded, but they typically grow to be six to eight feet and no more than three hundred pounds. Its coloration ranges from bluish-black and olive green on its back to white on its underside. It has a longer snout than other sturgeons and has four barbels at the side of its mouth.

Life cycle

Atlantic sturgeon under six years of age stay in the brackish water where they were born before moving into the ocean. They may be 3 to 5 feet long at this stage. In areas where the Shortnose sturgeon are also present, the adults of that species can be, and historically were for centuries, confused with immature Atlantic sturgeon. Atlantic sturgeon may take anywhere from seven to twenty-three years to become sexually mature, depending on the sex and temperature of the water. When mature, they travel upstream to spawn. The females may lay 800,000 to 3.75 million eggs in a single year, doing so every two to six years. After laying their eggs females will travel back downstream, but males may remain upstream after spawning until forced to return downstream by the increasingly cold water. They may even return to the ocean, where they stay near the coastline. Sturgeon can often live to the age of sixty years old. Accounts of sturgeon over the age of one hundred were not uncommon in colonial times. The species is also known for its occasional 'leaping' behavior, during which the fish will emerge completely out of the water in a forceful motion that can be hazardous to anything unlucky enough to be struck. The exact reason why sturgeon leap remains unknown.

Economic history

Originally, the Atlantic sturgeon was considered a worthless fish. Its rough skin would often rip nets, keeping fishermen from catching more profitable fish. However, when products derived from the atlantic sturgeon were found, their popularity quickly rose. Sturgeon were one of the types of fish harvested at the first North American commercial fishery, and were the first cash "crop" harvested in Jamestown, Virginia. The colonies found atlantic sturgeon to be a profitable resource, second in profit only to lobsters. Other fisheries along the Atlantic coast harvested them for use as food, a leather material used in clothing and bookbinding, and isinglass, a gelatinous substance used in clarifying jellies, glues, wines and beer. In the late 1800s, seven million pounds of sturgeon meat was exported from the US per year. Within years, however, that amount dropped to 22,000 pounds. The number later rose to about 200,000 pounds a year in the 1950s. Now, sturgeons are primarily used for the production of caviar.

Population status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not list the species as threatened or endangered on a nationwide level, but does acknowledge that it is threatened in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the Chesapeake Bay. The American Fisheries Society, however, considers the fish as threatened throughout its entire range, although it is believed to no longer inhabit the full range it once did. In the Chesapeake watershed, the James River in Virginia is one of the last confirmed holdouts for that region's nearly extirpated population. In May 2007 a survey identified 175 sturgeon remaining in the entire river, with 15 specimens exceeding five feet. A bounty-based survey of live Atlantic sturgeon in Maryland's portion of the Bay found "a high number of captures reported in 2005-06. The University of Georgia is also conducting an ongoing study on the life history of Atlantic sturgeon on the Altamaha river in Georgia.

Conservation designation

IUCN: Near Threatened

CITES: Appendix II

American Fisheries Society: Endangered in all stream systems except Conservation Dependent in Hudson, Delaware, and Altamaha rivers.

Status reviews

A new status review has been conducted and Atlantic sturgeon are now considered candidate species.

Links: Encyclopedia of Life | FAO Species Fact Sheet | Fishbase | ITIS | Pond Life | World Register of Marine Species

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