So sturgeon may burgeon

With some help from man, says a marine biologist, the fish could flourish again
July 29, 1979

As the old song goes, the virgin sturgeon needs no urgin'. And neither, it appears, do more experienced individuals of the genera. In the cases of the giant Atlantic sturgeon and the smallest species, the shortnose, new research indicates that primal urges have been working reasonably, even surprisingly, well. Which is O.K., but not great, says William Dovel, a 46-year-old marine biologist with the Oceanic Society. Dovel has been making uncommonly intense studies of these odd fish, and he believes that with a little help from man, the Atlantic could again become one of the important fish of the East Coast.

Sturgeon are literally "living fossils," having originated about 300 million years ago in the heyday of the dinosaurs. They look it. They have barbels for detecting food on the bottom, a cartilaginous sleeve-like mouth with bulbous lips, rows of armor plates instead of scales and a sickle-shaped tail. For all that, the flesh is a delicacy, and the eggs, after being washed in cold water and treated with salt, become caviar, the finest grade of which—Beluga, from the Caspian and Black seas—commands $18 an ounce in the U.S.

The native range of the Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon is from Florida to Canada. They were once abundant all along the coast, but overfishing after the turn of the century almost obliterated them. In fact, the shortnose is now an endangered fish. Witness Chesapeake Bay, where commercial fishing depleted the Atlantic sturgeon catch from 141,000 pounds in 1897 to 705 pounds in 1920.

Although the catching of an Atlantic sturgeon nowadays is a rarity in the Chesapeake and in most of the fish's other former haunts, both the Atlantic and the shortnose are commonly found, odd as it may seem, in the much-abused Hudson River. Indeed, Dovel argues, proper management of the Hudson population could restore the Atlantic sturgeon to the Chesapeake and other spawning grounds of the East Coast and create extraordinarily valuable commercial and sports fisheries. "Why shouldn't they be caught on rod and reel?" he says. "Sturgeon are caught by anglers in California and Oregon. If I were fishing the Hudson, I'd use a shrimp down on the bottom."

By Dovel's estimate, 100,000 juvenile Atlantics 10 to 30 inches long winter in the lower Hudson, with the majority concentrated in deep holes between the George Washington Bridge at the north end of Manhattan Island and the Bear Mountain Bridge 45 miles upstream.

Dovel conducts his fieldwork aboard a houseboat made over into a research vessel. He never bothered to get his Ph.D., the union card in a profession with its share of phonies, but he gets results that make sense, which is rare. From 1960 to 1971 he explored the Chesapeake, collecting and identifying 5,498,196 fish eggs and larvae and correlating each one with temperature and salinity. There was nary an Atlantic or shortnose sturgeon among them. In 1971 Dovel undertook his study of the lower Hudson. This time he collected three million eggs and larvae—including those of Atlantic sturgeon—and, fascinated by the species, began work on it and the shortnose in 1976.

This spring, with assistant Bruce Tripp, Dovel headed upriver, where he suspected the shortnose spawned. Working with biologist Tony Pekovitch, Dovel discovered the spawning grounds of the hitherto mysterious fish. It spawns from mid-April to mid-May over a 20-mile stretch of the river flowing past the state capital at Albany. Historically, this has been the grungiest reach of the Hudson, and the fish Dovel caught reflect it. "The entire shortnose sturgeon population is in extremely bad shape," says Dovel, who is supported by a grant from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "Practically every adult shortnose has bad fin rot, and a number have abdominal tumors." Nevertheless, on or near the spawning grounds, Dovel and commercial fishermen tagged and released more than 1,600 shortnose.

The Atlantic sturgeon population in the Hudson is in much better shape than the shortnose. The young stay in the river until they are two to five years old and then migrate to the ocean, where they spend from nine to 15 years. During that time, the load of PCBs they accumulated in the Hudson is reduced to next to nothing, a tenth of a part per million for the bigger fish.

Migrating juveniles enter the Atlantic in the fall, and fish that Dovel tagged in the river have been caught as far away as Nantucket Sound, Mass. and Kitty Hawk, N.C. A number of juveniles have been taken in rivers tributary to the Chesapeake. "I'm not aware of a spawning population in the Chesapeake," Dovel says, "but one reason sturgeon could be invading it is that there are no other fish in their food niche. It's again virgin territory for sturgeon."

Mature males return to the Hudson—to an area far downstream from the shortnose—in March and April, a month ahead of the females. The males are at least 11 or 12 years old, at which age they are on the average four feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds. They don't travel in schools but meander around the river singly, sometimes venturing—absentmindedly, it seems—above the spawning grounds. By contrast, the returning mature females are all business. They are at least 18 to 20 years old and weigh upwards of 100 pounds, and when the first of them arrive in May, they get right down to spawning when they encounter freshwater.

"In the summer of '76 I had a sonic transmitter on a ripe 168-pound female," Dovel says, "and in six or eight hours she had dropped her eggs, turned around and gone." Persistent as always, Dovel followed her down the river into New York Harbor where he finally lost her beep amidst all the static churned up by the Operation Sail fleet assembling to commemorate the Bicentennial. "I called the Navy and the Coast Guard to alert them that a sturgeon carrying a transmitter was moving through the harbor and sending out beeps at a frequency of one second at 70 kilohertz," Dovel says. "I did this because I assumed they would be listening for a man-made apparatus in the harbor because of the Russian ships there. They thought I was a quack."

The biggest fish to return to the river since Dovel began his study was a nine-foot, 245-pound female, about 30 years old, a quarter of whose weight, 61 pounds, was eggs.

Although the females depart at once, the males stay around until as late as the fall. Dovel does not know where the mature fish go in the ocean, but offshore fishermen have told him that they feed on shellfish such as clams and scallops in mud holes on the continental shelf.

But why are Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon common in the Hudson, of all places, and not elsewhere? "The physical morphology of the Hudson is different from most other estuarine systems," Dovel says. "It's deep, swift and characterized by an awful lot of rocky outcrops that make excellent spawning areas. The Chesapeake is shallow, sandy and muddy. It doesn't have the rock, slate and shale the Hudson does. The Hudson is the best habitat for spawning, and as the best it would be the last to collapse."

But if the Hudson would be the last to collapse, Dovel figures, it would also be the first to rebound and contribute spawning runs of Atlantic sturgeon to other estuaries. To this end, he is working on a management plan that he hopes New York will present to other states and the Federal Government.

"In all probability 95% of the Atlantic sturgeon's natural mortality occurs by the time the fish have reached the juvenile stage," Dovel says. "Every year approximately 25,000 of the 100,000 juveniles in the river leave for the sea, but we're not getting most of those fish back in later years to spawn. Something's happening out there. Sturgeon have two known predators, sharks and man, and from talking to commercial fishermen, I suspect that the bigger impact is coming from incidental catches along the coast. Atlantic sturgeon from the Hudson are vulnerable to capture for nine to 15 years before they return to the river. That's a long time, and if you add up the incidental catches out there, that comes to a lot of sturgeon.

"What we need is a common management policy along the coast. No Atlantic sturgeon should be taken anywhere in the Northeast, inshore or offshore, unless it's six feet long. That gives the fish the chance to spawn at least once. If that policy were followed, you'd start to see the effect within a year, because those fish that are out at sea approaching maturity would get the chance to spawn rather than be harvested.

"The situation would snowball, and in 10 or 12 years the Hudson would have 10 times the number of Atlantic sturgeon it has now. The carrying capacity of the Hudson—the number of juvenile fish the river can feed—would then be filled, and there would be a spillover into other, but possibly less optimal, spawning grounds such as the Chesapeake rivers. This is what happened when another anadromous fish, the striped bass, was introduced in California and then began spawning in Oregon. This also happened with the introduction of shad on the Pacific Coast. To accelerate the process, you could also stock."

Dovel hasn't finished his work on the Hudson—he would like, among other things, to be able to follow big fish with sonic tags at sea for several months—but, as he says, "In too many cases biologists are called in to analyze a crisis situation after the crisis. This may be the case with the shortnose, but it's not with the Atlantic sturgeon. We have the chance to rebuild a great fishery for the whole coast, and it's time we acted with foresight, not hindsight. Everyone would benefit, including the fish."

PHOTODovel would protect the juvenile Atlantic sturgeon. PHOTOThis 200-pound Atlantic sturgeon is ready for market.

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