Atlantic sturgeon being measured as part of a Cooperative Federal/State/Industry Atlantic Sturgeon Bycatch Reduction Survey. Photo © ASMFC.
Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) are ancient fish dating back at least 70 million years, and can be found along the entire Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador, Canada. They are anadromous, migrating from the ocean into coastal estuaries and rivers to spawn. Atlantic sturgeon may live up to 70 years old, with females reaching sexual maturity between the ages of seven to 30, and males between the ages of five to 24.
Typically sturgeon inhabiting the southern part of the species range mature faster and grow larger than those in the northern part of the range. Females reach sexual maturity between the ages of 7 and 30, and males between the ages of 5 and 24. The number of eggs that a female produces increases with age and size, which means that older and larger females are more valuable to the population because they produce more eggs (up to eight millions eggs per spawning event) than younger, smaller females (estimated 400,000 eggs per spawning event).
Most juveniles remain in their natal river from one to six years before migrating back out to the ocean. Little is known about the movements of Atlantic sturgeon when they are at sea. As juveniles, Atlantic sturgeon feed on flies, worms, shrimps, and small mollusks and crustaceans. As adults, they are opportunistic feeders and prey mainly on mollusks, snails, worms, shrimps and benthic fish. Very little is known about their natural predators.
Since colonial times, Atlantic sturgeon have supported commercial fisheries of varying magnitude. In the late 1800s, they were second only to lobster among important fisheries, with landings estimated at seven million pounds per year just prior to the turn of the century. Overharvesting of sturgeon for flesh and eggs (known as caviar) continued through the 1990s until the Commission and federal government implemented a coastwide moratorium in late 1997 and early 1998. Because the population has been severely overfished, the Commission's Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Sturgeon calls for a coastwide moratorium through at least 2038, in order to build up 20 year classes. Several facilities culture Atlantic sturgeon for research purposes.
Very little is known about the stock status of Atlantic sturgeon. Reliable data is difficult to obtain because many river systems have so few fish and rivers with more fish are often not easily sampled. In 1998, the Commission completed a peer-reviewed coastwide assessment of the population, examining each river system where Atlantic sturgeon were historically found. The assessment concluded that all systems held significantly less sturgeon than they did in the late 1800s and early 1900s
In 2009, the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list Atlantic sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The petition requested the coastwide population be divided into five distinct population segments (DPS): 1) Gulf of Maine, (2) New York Bight, (3) Chesapeake Bay, (4) Carolina, and (5) South Atlantic. In 2010, the NMFS announced that listing may be warranted. After further review, in 2012, the NMFS decided to list the Gulf of Maine DPS as threatened, and the other four DPSs as endangered.
In 2013, the Commission initiated a stock assessment for Atlantic sturgeon. The assessment is expected to be completed in late 2014/early 2015.
Atlantic sturgeon is managed through Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Sturgeon (July 1998) and its subsequent addenda (Addendum I - III). There is currently a moratorium on the species, as well as a prohibition on take, harvest, harassment and/or other actions that may cause the species harm.