Atlantic Sturgeon

Atlantic Sturgeon
Acipenser oxyrhinchus


Key Distinguishing Markings:

  • Sturgeon can be characterized by having an arched back with one row of bony plates or scutes.
  • Their head is down sloped.
  • The eye is small.
  • The bottom of their snout has four barbels or whiskers.
  • Their mouth is located on the underside of their head.
  • These fish are brownish olive in color on top, grading to pinkish tan on their sides, to white on bottom.
  • They are mostly cartilaginous; therefore, typical scales are absent.

Size:

  • Mature males are approximately 5 feet and 90 pounds.
  • Mature females are approximately 6 feet and 160 pounds.

Distribution:

  • Atlantic sturgeon are found along the Atlantic coast from Labrador, Canada to Florida and west to the Mississippi delta.
  • Before the turn of the century, most major river systems from Canada to Florida contained abundant, healthy stocks of Atlantic sturgeon. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chesapeake Bay supported the second greatest caviar fishery in the United States. However, by the end of the 19th century, high harvest rates drastically reduced abundances of Chesapeake Bay sturgeon.
  • Combined effects of overfishing and deterioration of habitat have caused Atlantic sturgeon to decline to the point of extirpation in Chesapeake Bay (Secor et. al. 1997). A small spawning population exists in Virginia's James River and York River but spawning is not known to occur in Maryland waters.

Habitat:

  • Adult Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous fish that spend the majority of their life at sea and only enter freshwater in the spring to spawn.
  • Sturgeons are river-specific, that is, each major river along the Atlantic coast appears to have a discrete spawning stock and adults return to their natal river to spawn.

Food Preference:

  • Sturgeons are bottom-feeders. Their mouth is located on the underside of their head.
  • This combination of a subterminal mouth and barbels make the sturgeon well designed for sensing and capturing benthic prey.
  • Their diet consists of worms, crustaceans, insect larvae, and mollusks.

Spawning:

  • Atlantic sturgeon are slow-growing and late maturing anadromous fish that migrate from the ocean into the coastal estuaries and rivers to spawn.
  • Atlantic sturgeon will ascend tributaries to spawn in tidal freshwater in May or June when temperatures reach approximately 64oF.
  • Males mature in 10-20 years when they are approximately 5 feet and 90 pounds.
  • Females mature in 15-30 years at 6 feet and 160 pounds.
  • Females spawn only once in a 2-6 year period, so recruitment is very low even though individual females produce up to 2 million eggs.
  • These large, black eggs are broadcast into the water, fertilized by males, and sink to the bottom, attaching to substrate.
  • Juveniles will spend several years (1-6) in freshwater of some large rivers or they may move down into more brackish waters near the river mouth before becoming migratory.
  • As sub-adults, they will then move into coastal and continental waters where they grow and mature.
  • Little information exists concerning the movements of Atlantic sturgeon once they reach the ocean.
  • Note: Virtually all Atlantic sturgeon captured or observed in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay since 1955 have been sub adults between 1 and 5 feet in length. No young of year fish have been captured. Genetic analysis has determined these fish to be migrants from other southern and northern coastal stocks.
  • Atlantic Sturgeon Stamp, courtesy of Postal Administration:Canada

Fishing Tips:

  • Chesapeake Bay Atlantic sturgeon are now listed as a federally endangered species and catch or possession is prohibited. More information can be found on the NOAA website.

Fun Fact:

  • Sturgeons are members of the ancient family, Acipenseridae, and have been here on earth since the Cretaceous period more than 120 million years ago.
  • The species name of Atlantic sturgeon "oxyrhinchus" means "sharp snout".
  • Early settlers reported huge schools leaping from the Susquehanna and James, and referred to sturgeon as navigational hazards.
  • An American officer during the Revolution had his leg broken by a ten foot sturgeon that leaped into his boat as he rowed across the Potomac at Georgetown.
  • The oldest Atlantic sturgeon was captured from the St. Lawrence River and was aged to be 60 years old.
  • The largest Atlantic sturgeon recorded was caught off Canada and measured 14 feet long and weighed 811 pounds.

Family: Acipenseridae (Sturgeons)

Order: Acipenseriformes (sturgeons and paddlefishes)

Class: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes)

For more information on Atlantic sturgeon and their management, please contact Brian Richardson or call Brian at 410-226-0078 ext 104.

Literature Cited
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.1996. Breeding and stocking protocol for cultured Atlantic Sturgeon. Peer review report. Washington, DC.

Secor, D.H., E. Niklitschek, J. Stevenson, T. Gunderson, S. Minkkinnen, B. Richardson, B. Florence, M. Mangold, J. Skjeveland, and A. Henderson-Arzapalo. 1997. Restoration of Atlantic Sturgeon Acipenser oxyrinchus in the Chesapeake Bay: Habitat Considerations. Chesapeake Biological Lab, University of Maryland Center of Environmental Science, Solomons, Maryland.

Atlantic Sturgeon Stamp, courtesy of Postal Administration: Canada
   Denomination: 45  Date of Issue: 30 May 1997


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