The sturgeon is an old fish, perhaps as old as 120 million years ago. That means they were contemporaries of the dinosaurs. They even look the part. Covered with large heavy plates their armor looks like something born of that age. Not quite extinct, they hang on the edge of survival in the modern era.
Once they were quite common in the Chesapeake Bay. Hunted for their caviar, the eggs of the female, which today brings as much as $1000.00 a pound, a huge fishery grew rapidly in the 1890's reaching an annual harvest of seven million pounds on the American East Coast. But just 30 years later the slow reproducing, long lived fish was nearly wiped out. Only 22 thousand pounds were landed. Today most caviar comes from Mississiippi river sturgeon, not Atlantic sturgeon, or from farmed fish.. Fishing for sturgeon is still a commercial venture, but it is currently under moratorium in the United States East coast. Sport fishing for the species is illegal.
Their fearsome look belies their usually reserved nature. They feed on worms and mollusks in the muddy bottoms, feeling out their prey with whiskers on the underside of their snout. They then vacuum them up with a protrusive mouth. Despite this sedentary lifestyle, the mysterious fish jumps completely clear of the water for no known reason. Recently a woman boating on the Suwannee River in Florida was injured by a sturgeon that landed on her.
Today, Maryland offers a reward of $50.00 to fishermen who can bring in a healthy sturgeon. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is holding a number of captured sturgeons in tanks. They have had male sturgeon for eleven years now awaiting the arrival of a female of breeding age and size. In June 2007, the sturgeon bride finally showed up. Caught in a commercial waterman's net in the Choptank River, researchers hope to make the 7.5 foot long, 12 year old, 170 pound fish the mother of her kind. They hope to harvest and fertilize her eggs and create at least 50000 sturgeon hatchlings before returning her to the wild.
Although there is some evidence of breeding sturgeons in the York and James Rivers of the southern Chesapeake Bay, the rest of the bay is not helping to produce the rare fish. Some breeding is increasing in the Hudson and Delaware rivers.
Juveniles remain in the rivers where they hatch. Males spend most of the year in the rivers, hoping for a willing female to return to their river. The females migrate to the coast in near shore waters until they return to the rivers to deposit their eggs. The large sticky deposit of eggs may contain anywhere from 800,000 to nearly 4 million eggs.
In the Bay, sediment and water quality are not providing an environment that promote sturgeon populations, so they will need a lot of help to get going again. Each individual is capable of living for 60 years. Females may not reach breeding age for 7 to 12 years. Once reaching maturity, the females only produce eggs once every 2 to 6 years. Re-establishing their population will take a very long time, estimated at 40 years before stocks recover enough so that commercial fishing might be allowed once more.
While sturgeons can grow as long as 15 feet and weigh as much as 800 pounds, they are seldom able to grow to such size today.