Atlantic Sturgeon Once Vital to New York State Fishing Industry
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The New York Aquarium has received five Endangered Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrhynchus) and has been designated a satellite research facility by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to educate aquarium visitors about the importance of protecting the historically important fish that were once plentiful in the Hudson River.
The aquarium will give New Yorkers an opportunity to see these gigantic sturgeon nose-to-nose, highlighting how the species has played a central role in New York State history and how conservationists are working to prevent their extinction.
“The Atlantic sturgeon is an amazing fish that was once central to the identity of the Hudson and Delaware rivers,” said Jon Forrest Dohlin, WCS Vice President and Director of the New York Aquarium. “In past centuries, the species was a big part of New York State’s regional trade in sturgeon meat and caviar. Of course, things have changed, and conservationists in New York and elsewhere are now committed to saving this imperiled species.”
Each sturgeon measures between five and six feet in length and weighs upwards of 120 pounds. They are now the latest denizens of Canyon’s Edge in Ocean Wonders: Sharks!, a massive replication of the Hudson Canyon marine ecosystem located approximately 100 miles off the coast of New York City. The Canyon’s Edge habitat is also home to sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, and other marine species native to New York waters.
The new additions were previously in the care of researchers at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in Oxford, Maryland (jointly operated by NOAA Fisheries and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources) since 2005 as part of a breed-and-release program. In 2012, the species was listed on the Endangered Species Act, with the population in the New York Bight considered Endangered.
Upon arrival from Maryland, the new sturgeon were held in quarantine at the aquarium where curators and animal health experts monitored the animals to ensure the new arrivals were free of pathogens.
The Atlantic sturgeon inhabits coastal areas and freshwater estuaries from Canada to Florida and can grow up to 14 feet in length and weigh up to 800 pounds.
Every spring, Atlantic sturgeon swim up the Hudson River to spawn. The fish were once so plentiful in the Hudson that the giant fish were referred to as “Albany beef.” In the 19th Century, Albany itself was sometimes called “Sturgeondom” or “Sturgeontown,” and Albany citizens were “Sturgeonites.” Unfortunately, the popularity of the fish’s meat and caviar led to overfishing and the resulting decline of the Atlantic sturgeon in both New York and other parts of the fish’s range. Habitat loss and pollution have further imperiled the species. To protect remaining Atlantic sturgeon populations, all fishing for this species has been prohibited since 1998. Bycatch in fishing nets, habitat loss, and pollution continue to threaten the species.
Sturgeons are primitive fish with an appearance unlike that of any other. They are easily identified by rows of bony plates or “scutes” on their bodies. They have a downward-facing, tube-like mouth lined with four barbels (or feelers) used to detect bottom-dwelling prey.
There are 27 known species of sturgeon worldwide. Sturgeon, like salmon, are anadromous fishes: They are born in freshwater, move into saltwater to mature, and return to their natal rivers to spawn. Most species are valued for their meat and their eggs, and they are slow-growing and long-lived. Consequently, more than half are listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List, and four species may in fact be extinct.
WCS has a history working with Atlantic sturgeon in the wild. In partnership with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WCS scientists used satellite tags to study the movements of adult sturgeon in the Hudson River and along the East Coast in 2006 and 2007. The data collected were used to help protect the species in their native habitats.
Ocean Wonders: Sharks! is a three-story, 57,500-square-foot building that opened in the summer of 2018. It is designed to connect New Yorkers to the wild marine habitats that surround the City and neighboring communities while educating visitors on the importance of sharks and other marine species to the health of the world’s oceans.
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