A Jurassic challenge
Research aims to bring ancient sturgeon back from the brink of extinction
CAMBRIDGE — Dr. Andy Lazur stands in a dimly lit room packed with giant fish tanks and rhapsodizes about the Atlantic sturgeon, one of the most unique fish in the Chesapeake Bay.
“They’re just such a beautiful animal,” he says.
“Beautiful” is not a word most people would choose to describe the sturgeon.
With a long snout, a flat belly and armor-like “scutes” on its back, this dark gray fish doesn’t carry the same glamour as the silvery striped bass or the bright flashes of color of the yellow perch.
But few people ever get a chance to see the sturgeon to judge for themselves.
This bottom-dwelling fish is teetering on the edge of extinction and hasn’t had regular reproduction in the bay in generations.
As such, it’s one of the bay’s most imperiled species.
Dr. Lazur, for one, isn’t willing to see these fish disappear without a fight.
“We could sit around and let this animal go extinct,” he says, “or we can do something.”
A Jurassic fish
First, a primer on the sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrhynchus.
It’s a species that has lived along the Atlantic coast – including the Chesapeake Bay – since Jurassic times.
That alone, sturgeon supporters say, makes it interesting.
But there’s more to this fish.
It is one of the only large fish that lives its life at the bottom of the bay and its rivers.
It glides along, gobbling up worms, shellfish, mollusks, soft- shell clams, shrimp and some small fish with its vaccuum-like mouth.
The sturgeon’s mouth is designed for efficiency, located on the fish’s bottom side where all the good food is.
It also lacks the usual fish scales; instead it has rows of bony plates called scutes – something akin to the scutes on a turtle’s shell.
Sturgeon can reach remarkable sizes. The largest ever recorded in Maryland was 14 feet long and weighed 811 pounds.
They are migratory fish, moving among different waters along the coast.
Sturgeon also have an unusually-long life span. They can live to be 80.
Along with the long life, they also take a long time to reach sexual maturity, usually 10 to 15 years.
After that, they spawn (or reproduce) at best every three years.
Most other bay fish reach maturity in about three years then spawn every year thereafter.
With such a unique lifespan and reproductive timeline, it takes a sturgeon population a long time to grow.
The sturgeon population in the bay and along the Atlantic coast hit rock-bottom in the early 1900s.
In the hundred years since then, there’s been minimal progress along the coast and virtually no population increase in the bay.
Why the crash?
The reason is a common one in the Chesapeake.
The sturgeon was nearly fished to extinction at a time when fishermen, politicians and seafood lovers didn’t know the harm they were doing.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, sturgeon were prized for their roe, which was used in caviar.
There’s evidence that the sturgeon’s gastronomic role went back even further. Native Americans ate sturgeon meat, as did the English settlers at Jamestown in Virginia in the early 1600s.
“There is very strong evidence that the sturgeon played a role in the survival of the colonists,” said Albert Spells, a Virgina-based biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I imagine without sturgeon, we might not be here today as an English-speaking people.”
But here we are, and there are a few sturgeon here, too, barely hanging on.
There’s no exact measure of the sturgeon population. But Brian Richardson of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said the Maryland population is “effectively zero.”
While sturgeon sometimes swim in our waters – watermen catch them in their nets and an occasional angler spots one – there are none born here and none that spend a lot of time here.
Virginia doesn’t have a population estimate either, but they do have evidence down south of at least occasional reproduction.
In the past few years, a handful of tiny fish – 6 or 8 inches long – have turned up in the James River.
One six-incher was hauled in on a trawl net by schoolkids aboard the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s educational boat Chesapeake two years ago. Two more in the 25-inch range turned up this fall, said Chesapeake Capt. Ken Slazyk.
Capt. Slazyk said he’d never before seen a sturgeon in the wild and almost didn’t believe it at first.
“We were like, ‘Somebody must be playing a joke on us,’ ” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Mr. Spells, the federal biologist in Virginia, said finding those small fish was validation that something is going right.
“I was like a kid at Christmas,” he said. “It was just exciting to see this little fish, to hold this little fish to confirm what you had theorized 10 years prior, and people had doubted you.”
The theory is that if fish that small are found in an area, that means they were born in that same area.
Those few catches confirmed that there is indeed some sturgeon spawning in the James.
“The problem,” Mr. Spells explained, “is that we don’t know what level of spawning we have.”
Studies are under way in Virginia to get a better handle on the level of spawning. Mr. Spells is working with Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
And in January, those agencies and many representatives from Maryland will meet to talk about the state of sturgeon in the James and in the bay.
“This is a time for us just to share what we’re doing. It’s important to know what each other is doing,” Mr. Spells said.
Here in Maryland, much of the sturgeon efforts are centered at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point Lab on the outskirts of Cambridge.
There, Dr. Lazur keeps watch over two rooms of tanks housing dozens of sturgeon.
From tiny fry imported from the Hudson River to subadults and adults turned over by watermen, Dr. Lazur has amassed one of the largest captive collections of sturgeon.
Much of the stock comes from watermen, who are paid by the state for turning in live sturgeon.
At Horn Point, Dr. Lazur is trying to collect enough fish to start a breeding program.
He must have at least 100 mature fish who meet a variety of criteria in terms of age and geographic origin. That will make sure there is a healthy gene pool.
“The restoration effort is long-term,” Dr. Lazur said. “Our ultimate goal is to spawn animals from Chesapeake Bay stock and do test releases.”
Eventually, there could be a major breeding and restocking effort in the bay. But it will take time to follow the test-release fish to see how well they survive.
Dr. Lazur and his assistants are raising small juvenile fish on loan from Canada to learn how to care for the young fish.
Like Mr. Spells in Virginia, Dr. Lazur works with partners such as the Maryland DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even the Mirant energy company. The National Aquarium in Baltimore has been involved in the past.
“Individually, we’re going to just do little bits and pieces,” he said. “Together we can do more.”
But the sturgeon research is just one part of Dr. Lazur’s responsibilities. He also works on striped bass and clownfish.
It’s the same for Mr. Spells in Virginia, who also has to deal with several other species while manning a one-person office that’s roughly halfway between Jamestown and Richmond.
Sturgeon are quite low on the funding ladder. They have to compete with more popular species such as striped bass, oysters, crabs, perch and shad.
“The funding’s really not there, so we just try to fit it in where we can,” said the DNR’s Mr. Richardson, who is based at Matapeake on Kent Island. “It’s a shoestring thing.”
There’s hardly anyone who works full-time on sturgeon, and still only a handful of people who work part-time on sturgeon.
Those who do work with sturgeon say a little bit more money and attention would go a long way.
And they say it’s worth it – sturgeon are one of the most unique fish in the bay.
Invariably, they say, when someone is introduced to sturgeon, they are won over.
“They’re a great educational fish,” Dr. Lazur said, pointing out a tank in his lab that holds sturgeon, striped bass and yellow perch. It’s set up specifically for educational tours.
A hardy fish, sturgeon also can handle being held and touched by scientists and curious kids and adults.
Mr. Spells in Virginia likes to put a few fish in a kiddie pool.
“They’re just like little puppies. The kids pet them,” he said. “They are neat animals to show that way.”
Mr. Richardson of the DNR said sturgeon are “charismatic.”
“You can take one of these things that’s one or two feet long and take it to a county fair and pet it all day long,” he said.
The sturgeon researchers continue to promote their fish and hope that eventually it will catch on with the public.
And with their small budgets, they work to bring back the sturgeon, even though they know any progress will be slow to come.
“To restore sturgeon, it’s going to take an awful long time. I will be retired before that happens. Hopefully, I’ll still be alive,” said Mr. Spells, who is 51. “In this country we like quick results … and this will not happen with sturgeon.”
Copyright © 2006 Capital Gazette Newspapers
Want to help Sturgeon?
The University of Maryland has an “Adopt- a-Sturgeon” program aimed at helping pay for housing, feeding and studying Atlantic sturgeon.
Participants can adopt a fish for a week ($25), month ($100) or year ($1,000). Contributions also are being solicited to improve the tank facility at the university’s Horn Point Lab in Cambridge.
Checks can be made payable to the University System of Maryland Foundation and sent to Sturgeon Restoration Program, Horn Point Laboratory, PO Box 775, Cambridge, MD 21613.
You can get an up-close look at the Horn Point sturgeon during the lab’s annual open house in the fall. For information, check www.hpl.umces.edu.