- ES Home
- What We Do
- Candidate Conservation
- Listing and Critical Habitat
- For Landowners
- About Us
- FWS Regions
- Laws & Policies
- For Kids
- The Class of 1967
- Nearing the Finish Line: Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel Recovery
- Big Bend's Namesake Fish Saved from Extinction
- Recovering the Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander: A Little Amphibian with a Large Fan-base
- Rivers of Shortnose Sturgeon in Winter
- The Yuma Clapper Rail: A Marsh Bird in the Desert
Rivers of Shortnose Sturgeon in Winter
By Catherine Gatenby
Photo Credit: USFWS
In the dark of the night, on December 25, 1776, the watermen of Massachusetts navigated George Washington and his Continental Army across the Delaware River. Below, in the depths of the river, were likely hundreds shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) huddled together as they do in the winter, tails and heads merging into one large breathing organism—silent witnesses to this historic event.
At 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and five feet (1.5 meters) long, shortnose sturgeon are large fish, but they are the smallest of the three species of sturgeon in eastern North America. Like their cousin the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrinchus), they once occurred by the thousands in coastal rivers, from Canada to Florida. Unlike the Atlantic sturgeon, however, the shortnose spends most of its life in rivers—even in the cold of December.
By the end of the 19th Century, overharvesting had seriously depleted shortnose sturgeon populations. Damming rivers and using them as dumping grounds during the industrialization of the U.S. were additional blows to the species and its freshwater habitat. The species gained federal protection in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a parent to today's Endangered Species Act. It was among the first 78 species to be listed as endangered. At the time, just a few remnant populations remained.
Photo Credit: USFWS
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 added habitat protections, which were missing under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, and passage of the Clean Water Act further benefited the species, and others dependent on clean, healthy waters. Today, after 40 years, the status of the shortnose sturgeon is improving in northern rivers. The Hudson River population alone has increased by over 400 percent since 1973—a success shared by many communities and organizations that have worked together to protect habitat in the river for decades.
In 2005, a fisherman hauled in a single shortnose from the Penobscot. The event spurred Dr. Gail Zydlewski and colleagues at the University of Maine to begin a tagging program to monitor shortnose migratory behaviors and use of rivers within the Pine Tree State. The team found that shortnose sturgeon in the Penobscot may migrate to spawn in the Kennebec River, a 170-mile-long (270 km) river flowing through the heart of Maine, which has been one focus for migratory fish habitat restoration.
One year into the project, researchers at the University of Maine confirmed a population of the endangered fish in Maine's Penobscot River—the first in nearly 30 years. The confirmation offers biologists hope that habitat conditions in the river have improved to the point where it can support a healthy breeding population.
At one time, the Penobscot River supported large populations of spawning shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon. With the removal of the Veazie Dam and other dams, 100 percent of historic spawning habitat will be restored and accessible to all sturgeon in the Penobscot River.
In the Delaware River, shortnose sturgeon may be rebounding as well, helping to repopulate the Potomac River via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Shortnose were thought to be gone from the Potomac, but fishermen have reported catching these ancient looking fish in the past 10 years, and scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the U.S. Geological Survey have identified a shortnose making a pre-spawning migration run in the Potomac River.
Photo Credit: USFWS
"Although, we aren't yet certain whether shortnose are spawning in the Potomac, we are certain suitable habitat exists for foraging, wintering and spawning," says Mike Mangold, a Service biologist in the Annapolis, Maryland Fishery Resource Office.
In 1992, the Service's Maryland Fisheries Resource Office began managing the Atlantic Coast Cooperative Sturgeon Tagging program, which aims to track Atlantic sturgeon, but fishermen and cooperators occasionally report catching shortnose. Fishermen contact the Service when they capture and then release tagged sturgeon.
"We are building a better understanding of how populations are faring in the wild, and where to focus efforts on restoring additional habitat for sturgeon," says Sheila Eyler, the Atlantic Coast Cooperative Sturgeon tagging program coordinator.
Historically, shortnose sturgeon were present in the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers. Recent improvements to habitat in New England will help shortnose sturgeon return to these rivers, as well.
Reflecting back upon the historic crossing of the Delaware this winter season, we understand how fortunate our nation is, able to enjoy the rich natural heritage and healthy productive rivers and streams—thanks to a Congress that passed the Endangered Species Act and other landmark environmental laws.
Catherine Gatenby, a senior fisheries biologist in the Service's Northeast Region, can be reached at email@example.com or 585-948-5445, ext. 2208.
What We Do
- Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs)
- Safe Harbor Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements
- Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances
- Recovery Credits and Tax Deductions
- Conservation Banking
- Conservation Plans Database
- Information, Planning and Conservation System (IPaC)
- Recovery Online Activity Reporting System (ROAR)
- News Stories
- Featured Species
- Recovery Success Stories
- Endangered Species Bulletin
- Partnership Stories