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 (whiskerlike sensory organs) on the underside of its snout. Its mouth is soft and toothless.
These fish prey upon benthic creatures, meaning they live on the sea floor, 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.
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 the river they were born in 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. 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. Atlantic sturgeon can live for more than 60 years.
Did You Know?
- 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.
- The largest Atlantic sturgeon ever recorded was caught in Canada. It measured 14 feet long and weighed 811 pounds.
- 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.
- 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
- Fishes of Chesapeake Bay by Edward O. Murdy, Ray S. Birdsong and John A. Musick
- Life in the Chesapeake Bay by Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson
- Maryland Fish Facts: Atlantic Sturgeon – Maryland Department of Natural Resources
- Atlantic Sturgeon – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office