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.
Brown, tan or bluish-black body
Five rows of bony plates (called scutes) covering the head and body: one along the back, one on either side, and two along the belly
Long, hard snout with an upturned tip
Soft, toothless mouth
Four sensory barbels on the underside of the snout
Grows very slowly, eventually reaching 5-6 feet long. Males weigh up to 90 pounds and females weigh up to 160 pounds.
Lives at the bottom of freshwater rivers during its time in the Chesapeake Bay region
Spends most of its life in the ocean
Tends to travel alone, rather than in schools
Travels through the Bay in April-May on its way to freshwater spawning areas in the James and York rivers, and again in autumn when it leaves the Bay for coastal ocean waters
All of the Bay’s large rivers likely once had spawning populations
Preys upon benthic creatures including clams and other mollusks, crustaceans, worms and insects
Sturgeons are bottom feeders. They use their snout to root through the mud and find their prey, then suck it into their mouth like a vacuum.
Few natural predators because of the bony plates covering its body
Human activities such as pollution, historic overfishing and damming of rivers threaten sturgeons
Reproduction and Life Cycle:
Sturgeons are anadromous, meaning they live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater rivers
Spawns from April-June in the freshwater river it was born in
Typically only returns to spawn every 3-5 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. 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. Females take nearly 20 years to mature.
Can live for more than 60 years
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.