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Atlantic Sturgeon

Acipenser oxyrhynchus

The Atlantic sturgeon has a long, hard snout with an upturned tip. (Virginia Institute of Marine Science)
The Atlantic sturgeon has a long, hard snout with an upturned tip. (Virginia Institute of Marine Science)

The Atlantic sturgeon is a bony, ancient-looking fish that visits the Chesapeake Bay in spring to spawn in Virginia’s James and York rivers. It was once found throughout the Bay and its freshwater rivers, but is now very rare.

Appearance:

The Atlantic sturgeon has a brown, tan or bluish-black body and a whitish belly. It has no scales, but five rows of bony plates, called scutes, cover its head and body: one along the back, one on either side and two along the belly. It grows slowly, eventually reaching 5 to 6 feet in length. Males weigh up to 90 pounds and females weigh up to 160 pounds. Its long, hard snout has an upturned tip, with four sensory barbels on the underside of its snout. Its mouth is soft and toothless.

Habitat:

Lives at the bottom of freshwater rivers during its time in the Chesapeake Bay region. Spends most of its life in the ocean and tends to travel alone, rather than in schools.

Range:

Travel through the Bay in April to May on their way to freshwater spawning areas in the James and York rivers, and again in autumn when they leaves the Bay for coastal ocean waters. All of the Bay’s large rivers likely once had spawning populations of Atlantic sturgeon.

Feeding:

These fish prey upon benthic creatures including clams and other mollusks, crustaceans, worms and insects. As bottom-feeders, they use their snout to root through the mud and find their prey, then suck it into their mouth like a vacuum.

Predators:

Because of the bony plates covering its body, the Atlantic sturgeon has few natural predators. Human activities such as pollution, historic overfishing and damming of rivers threaten sturgeon.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater rivers. Spawning occurs from April to June in the freshwater river they were born in, with sturgeon typically only returning to spawn every 3 to 5 years. Females can lay up to 2 million eggs, which are large and black and stick to the bottom of the river. After laying their eggs, females leave their spawning areas, while males remain there until autumn. Once hatched, juveniles stay in their natal river for as long as six years before moving into the Bay’s open waters and eventually the ocean. Males do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 10 years old, and females take nearly 20 years to mature. Atlantic sturgeon can live for more than 60 years.

Other Facts:

  • Sturgeons are prehistoric fish that have existed for more than 120 million years. They were around during the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
  • Part of the Atlantic sturgeon’s scientific name, oxyrhynchus, means “sharp snout.”
  • Sturgeons are the largest fish native to the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The largest Atlantic sturgeon ever recorded was caught in Canada. It measured 14 feet long and weighed 811 pounds.
  • Sturgeons were abundant when English settlers arrived in the Bay region in the 1600s. They were a reliable source of food for the settlers most of the year.
  • Sturgeons supported an important fishing industry from colonial times to the early 20th century. In particular, caviar from sturgeon eggs was considered a delicacy in Europe.
  • Sturgeons are very sensitive to low oxygen, pollution and other poor water conditions. This, combined with their slow rate of maturity, damming of their spawning rivers and historic commercial fishing pressure, has caused the species to become very rare.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially declared the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species in 2012. It is illegal to fish for, catch or harvest Atlantic sturgeon or their eggs.

Sources and Additional Information:




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