By Karl Blankenship
(Special to THE CHESAPEAKE)
Atlantic sturgeon have no shortage of adjectives that suit them. Ancient, as in a fish species that has been around so long it swam with dinosaurs. Giant, as in the largest fish native to the Chesapeake Bay – it can grow to 14 feet and weigh 800 pounds. Long-lived, as it can survive up to 60 years.
And potentially one more: federally endangered.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has proposed listing most Atlantic sturgeon populations along the East Coast as endangered species, including those native to the Chesapeake, because they could become extinct in the foreseeable future.
Its recommendation came in response to a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council that argued that current protections, including a coastwide ban on harvest, had been inadequate because they failed to address a gauntlet of other problems such as sturgeon bycatch in other fisheries, impacts of pollution, ship strikes, dredging and global warming.
The NMFS is expected to make a final decision about the listing late next year.
The recommendation is a mixed bag, scientists say.
It could bring more protection from ship strikes and sturgeon bycatch in other fisheries. It could also mean more support for research in the James River, where a small breeding population remains.
But scientists fear it could doom hopes to eventually stock sturgeon in Maryland tributaries, where the giant fish is thought to be extirpated from all rivers. A 15-year old sturgeon tagging program in Maryland may also be in jeopardy.
“Certainly, listing increases public awareness of the plight of the species,” said Brian Richardson, a fisheries biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “But it most likely is going to have