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.
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.
This sturgeon lives at the bottom of freshwater rivers during its time in the Chesapeake Bay region. It spends most of its life in the ocean and tends to travel alone, rather than in schools.
Atlantic sturgeon 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.
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.
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.
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.