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Powering Atlantic Sturgeon Recovery with Science
by Catherine Gatenby
Photo Credit: USFWS
Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast Fishery Center (NEFC) in Lamar, Pennsylvania work to recover endangered fish, including the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus). This ancient resident of eastern waters has been around for 85 million years, but is now struggling to survive. Much is still unknown about this species and its specific conservation needs, but NEFC scientists are gathering information to help protect and restore the sturgeon's habitat to secure its future.
These large fish, which can grow up to 14 feet and weigh over 800 pounds, were once abundant in rivers and estuaries from Canada to Florida. One of the first commercial fisheries in the U.S., Atlantic sturgeon provided a source of food, tools, and even clothing for early settlers. However, even one of the world's oldest fish could not withstand over-fishing, pollution, and dam construction. The species gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in February 2012, adding a federal layer of protection to the over 20 years of protection afforded by states along the Atlantic coast.
The Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous fish—adults spawn in freshwater in the spring and early summer and migrate into estuarine and marine waters where they spend most of their lives. Their habits during migration to the ocean, and their migratory patterns while in the ocean, are not well known. Understanding where these fish go and where they prefer to live, and knowing the trends in relative abundance of adults and juveniles surviving in the wild, is critical to the species' recovery.
"Locating the Atlantic sturgeon during migration is key to being able to determine preferred freshwater and marine habitats and to identify potential risks to the fish during migration," says John Sweka, a fishery biologist at the NEFC.
The research of NEFC scientists is uncovering migratory patterns and habitat preferences of both the adult Atlantic sturgeon and their juvenile offspring. Satellite-tracking devices used to monitor migration patterns of Atlantic sturgeon in the ocean have revealed that sturgeon can travel long distances from the shores of Long Island, New York, to as far south as Georgia and as far north as the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, before returning to the Hudson River to spawn. Scientists have also discovered where young sturgeon live in the Hudson River, and that adult sturgeon live in ocean depths up to 120 feet.
"Implementing the technology for tagging and tracking that wasn't harmful to the fish, and that provided longer range tracking capability than other tracking devices was one of our strengths in this project," says Sweka. "We published this research along with our coauthors, which provided the scientific evidence needed for states and others to continue to use this technology for tracking Atlantic sturgeon."
The information scientists are gathering will help states assess sturgeon movement patterns and habitat use. With better estimates of population size, these discoveries of habitat preferences and migration routes are keys to recovering the species.
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