By Kaitlyn Bendik
Have you ever heard of a fish called the Atlantic Sturgeon? I hadn’t until recently. When I sought out to learn about the different endangered species in the District of Columbia, I learned that this fish can grow to an enormous 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, but it is also endangered. Who knew such aquatic behemoths lived in rivers and estuaries in the Mid Atlantic Region?
I also learned that the Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous fish species that can live up to 60 years. It dwarfs the other two sturgeon species found in eastern North America, and is a benthic or bottom feeder.
Recently, the Atlantic Sturgeon was added to the Endangered Species List in the Chesapeake Bay and four other “distinct population segments.”
So how does a species get listed? A concerned citizen like you may petition the United States Secretary of the Interior to add a species, which begins a process of deciding whether there’s enough information to prove that a species needs listing. Likewise, an organization such as the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service engages in a candidate species process, where a scientific study is conducted to gather data. When the study concludes a species needs listing, it publishes its findings in the Federal Register for public comment. Once that process is complete, the species can get its spot on list.
Why is the Atlantic sturgeon on the list? Historically, this fish was a part of commercial fisheries in the US. But due to dwindling numbers, in 1998, a harvest moratorium was put on the Atlantic sturgeon. Despite that action, sturgeon populations are still threatened today. They get caught inadvertently by fishermen, and in estuaries and rivers, they face habitat degradation and loss due to human activities like dredging, dams, water withdrawals, and development, as well as being hit by ships.
The Atlantic sturgeon species numbers in the Chesapeake Bay have dropped substantially, from about 20,000 breeding females in 1890 throughout the Bay and its tributaries, to less than 300 breeding females that are found in only the James River. But a comeback is hopefully soon to come with the actions taken to build back its population.
Keeping our water clean will help keep the Atlantic sturgeon around forever. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Delaware River Basin Commission website for tips on what you can do to help protect the bays and the endangered species that call them home.