The Atlantic sturgeon – a rare, ancient-looking fish that supported an important 19th century fishery in the Chesapeake Bay region – has been proposed by NOAA Fisheries Service to be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Atlantic sturgeon have existed since the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. They are large fish with brownish bodies covered in bony plates. They visit the Chesapeake Bay in spring to spawn in fresh water. Sturgeon likely used to spawn in all of the Bay’s tributaries, but today only the James and York rivers in Virginia have small spawning populations.

Records indicate that Atlantic sturgeon were once abundant. The fish supported an important 19th century fishery when their eggs became popular as caviar. The commercial fishery peaked in 1870 but collapsed by 1901, when landings were just 10 percent of the peak.

All Atlantic coast states completely banned Atlantic sturgeon fishing in 1998, but sturgeon are still extremely rare. According to a federal review in 2007, Atlantic sturgeon are usually harmed by unintentional catch, vessel strikes and dredging, as well as by polluted water and damming of rivers.

The purpose of listing species as “endangered” is to offer special protections designed to prevent the species from becoming extinct.

Another Chesapeake Bay sturgeon, the shortnose sturgeon, is already on the endangered species list.

The Gulf of Maine, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic populations of Atlantic sturgeon are also included in this proposal.

Citizens can comment on NOAA’s proposed listing by Jan. 4, 2011.

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