Atlantic sturgeon were an important species targeted by early settlers in the Chesapeake Bay (Hildebrand and Schroeder 1928). Landings were reported to be 300,000-400,000 kg (136,000-181,000 lbs.) annually in the 1890's. High exploitation rates, degraded water quality and the building of stream blockages reduced the population. By 1928, Atlantic sturgeon were rarely caught north of the Potomac River (Merritt 1992). Maryland closed the fishery for sturgeon in 1996. There have been no young of year Atlantic sturgeon caught in Maryland's juvenile finfish survey for the past 45 years (Speir and O'Connell 1996). Atlantic sturgeon are considered biologically extirpated or below minimum viable population size in the Chesapeake Bay (Secor et al. 1997).
Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service (DNR) Restoration and Enhancement Program conducted an experimental release of Atlantic sturgeon in 1996. Approximately 3,000 juveniles were released into the Nanticoke River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary on Maryland's Eastern Shore. A subsequent reward program recorded 462 first time captures of these fish (14% recapture rate) between release and 2001. Multiple recaptures were frequent, indicating excellent survival after capture in commercial gears. During this time, 555 wild sturgeon were also captured in the Chesapeake Bay. These fish were primarily of immature, sub-adult migratory size (16-95"in length). No wild young of year or adult sturgeon were reported. Since a limited release of hatchery fish produced such a large number of hatchery recaptures and no wild young of year or adults, it appears unlikely that any natural reproduction is occurring in Maryland.
The experimental release indicated the potential for restoring Atlantic sturgeon using hatchery-based restoration. DNR began a cooperative partnership with the University of Maryland, GenOn and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to conduct Atlantic sturgeon restoration in Maryland. Each partner contributes unique resources to the project.
DNR has been rearing a captive population of sturgeon since 1996. GenOn cultures approximately half of the captive stock at their Chalk Point Aquaculture Facility. Our long-term goal is to develop these fish into brood stock. Currently we have approximately 60 sturgeon. The largest fish are beginning to reach sexual maturation. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Breeding and Stocking Protocol (ASMFC SR #22) contains guidelines for jurisdictions attempting restoration. The sturgeon currently under culture at Chalk Point are primarily the progeny of Hudson River stock collected and spawned by the US Fish & Wildlife Service Northeast Fishery Center National Fish Hatchery in Lamar, Pennsylvania. They were spawned from a limited number of adults so genetic variation is limited.
DNR collects wild juveniles caught in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries through the live sturgeon reward program. Fish that are appropriate for inclusion into the captive brood population are transported to the University of Maryland's Aquaculture and Restoration Ecology Laboratory (AREL) in Cambridge, Maryland. At AREL, captive brood fish are trained to take artificial feed in the hatchery. These collections will expand the genetic diversity of our captive brood stock.
In addition to the GenOn Chalk Point Aquaculture Center, GenOn and DNR have developed another cooperative project at GenOn's Potomac River Generating Station. A pilot Atlantic sturgeon culture trial began in the summer of 2006. Positive findings from the pilot effort led to an expanded culture trial in 2007. As part of the renewed partnership in 2008, GenOn will provide funding over the next five years to support Atlantic sturgeon restoration activities. The Potomac River Generating Station sturgeon culture facility cultures larval and juvenile sturgeon. The primary goal of the Potomac River sturgeon culture facility is to investigate steamside culture for imprinting purposes. It is critical that any fish stocked as larvae or juveniles will imprint to the target tributary, so that they may successfully return to spawn. Atlantic sturgeon are believed to imprint to their natal rivers, allowing them to return to spawn upon maturity. The facility also serves as an education and outreach tool since it is included on plant tours
The DNR Atlantic sturgeon restoration project will ultimately develop the tools and techniques to facilitate restoration of this primitive and fascinating fish. It will provide precise genetic information about our captive population that will be used to satisfy ASMFC guidelines for Atlantic sturgeon restoration. These data will also contribute to the database of genetic information on the east coast population of sturgeon stocks. Once the captive brood reach sexual maturity, juvenile sturgeon will be cultured, marked and stocked in target tributaries. A comprehensive assessment survey will be conducted to qualify and quantify the progress of the restoration effort.
- Atlantic Sturgeon Identification
- Maryland DNR Fisheries Service Hatcheries and Finfish Restoration program cooperates with a diverse collection of partners to accomplish program goals, click here to view list of partners.
- For more information concerning Atlantic sturgeon in Maryland, contact Brian Richardson at 410-226-0078 or E-mail Brian here