Atlantic sturgeon return home!

Dr. DeWayne Fox, Delaware State University aboard the Dana Christine boat evaluates growth of an Atlantic sturgeon collected from Atlantic Ocean in 2013 that was hatchery-reared at the Northeast Fishery Center and stocked into the Hudson River in 1994. Photo courtesy of the university.
Northeast Fishery Center scientist, Jerre Mohler, preparing to release this hatchery-reared juvenile Atlantic sturgeon into the Hudson River. Credit: USFWS

Northeast Fishery Center scientist, Jerre Mohler, preparing to release this hatchery-reared juvenile Atlantic sturgeon into the Hudson River. Credit: USFWS

You’ve probably heard of stocking hatchery-reared fish to help increase fish populations for recreational enjoyment and for food. But did you know that some hatcheries rear and recover endangered fish?

This work is very tricky, however, particularly for species such as the Atlantic sturgeon that live a long time, often 60 years, and don’t reproduce until they are at least 10 to 14 years old …or more. That hasn’t stopped our scientists at the Northeast Fishery Center.

Five Atlantic sturgeon populations were protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2012, including the New York Bight population, which is listed as endangered. Back in 1994, the center captured Atlantic sturgeon to rear juveniles, and later released four-month-old sturgeon to the Hudson River. Fifteen years later, in 2009, biologists captured a hatchery-reared, ripe male–ready to spawn–that had migrated back to where its parents had been captured back in 1994.

This hatchery-reared sturgeon had migrated with wild sturgeon, suggesting that hatchery fish are capable of behaving similar to their wild counterparts.

Just this past spring off Bethany Beach in Delaware, biologists with the Delaware State University and the boat crew of the Dana Christine captured a 150-pound, large ripe female from the same 1994 stocking effort. They tagged her with a device allowing scientists at the Maryland Fishery Resource Office in Annapolis, Md., to track where she goes to spawn and to monitor her migration.

Dr. DeWayne Fox, Delaware State University aboard the Dana Christine boat evaluates growth of an Atlantic sturgeon collected from Atlantic Ocean in 2013 that was hatchery-reared at the Northeast Fishery Center and stocked into the Hudson River in 1994. Photo courtesy of the university.

Dr. DeWayne Fox, Delaware State University aboard the Dana Christine boat evaluates growth of an Atlantic sturgeon collected from Atlantic Ocean in 2013 that was hatchery-reared at the Northeast Fishery Center and stocked into the Hudson River in 1994. Photo courtesy of the university.

And just like Henry Hudson who sailed up the Hudson River in 1609, and other great men and women that have been drawn to the Hudson Valley’s richness, this female sturgeon was tracked making a run up the Hudson River this summer to spawning areas near Hyde Park!

Indeed, several hatchery-reared Atlantic sturgeon have been recaptured since the 1994 stocking in the Hudson River, and our folks at the Maryland Fishery Resource Office report that this number continues to grow each year.

These major finds provide scientists proof that you can raise a fish outside of its natural home range in a hatchery with good culture protocols, and the fish will migrate out to the ocean at the appropriate time and become sexually mature like wild fish do.

Not to mention, these Atlantic sturgeon fingerlings were reared at a facility in the Susquehanna River Basin (Chesapeake Bay drainage), yet they still were able to imprint to the Hudson River for eventual spawning. So now we know that imprinting can take place after four months–an important piece of information if future restoration stockings are planned.

This is all good news for folks around the world looking for scientific tools to help us restore and recover depleted fish populations.

Read more about our work to recover Atlantic sturgeon!

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