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.
In 2013, the Commission initiated the development of a coastwide benchmark stock assessment for Atlantic sturgeon to evaluate stock status, stock delineation, and bycatch; the findings of which should be available in early 2015. The assessment responds to the 2012 ESA listing of Atlantic sturgeon as threatened for the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment (DPS) and endangered for the remaining DPSs (New York Bight, Chesapeake Bay, Carolina, and South Atlantic).
Very little is known about the Atlantic sturgeon’s stock status. Reliable data are difficult to obtain because many river systems have few fish, and rivers with more fish are often not easily sampled. Several states have been conducting long-term monitoring of Atlantic sturgeon. Data from two of these efforts are provided in the accompanying graphs, which depict catch per unit effort (CPUE) for fishery-independent surveys conducted by North Carolina and New York. Both surveys have experienced significant fluctuations in recent years. However, in 2013, North Carolina’s CPUE was the second highest value in the past twenty years. Further, the spike of juveniles seen in New York’s survey are believed to be a direct result of the New York’s moratorium in 1997 and the concomitant increase of spawning fish in the Hudson River.
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.