Tag Archives: atlantic sturgeon

Virginia rivers opened for the first time in 100 years!

Colonial leaders got it right for fish … and people too.

As far back as 1670, Virginia prohibited structures like dams that would hinder fish migrating up and down our rivers. Why? They recognized their future depended on the millions of delicious migratory fish swimming our coastal rivers. Fish biologist Albert Spells will tell you that feasting on Atlantic sturgeon saved the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown.


Albert Spells with an Atlantic sturgeon caught on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit:USFWS

Flash forward to the 1900s, and the rivers paint a different picture. The growing cities and towns have built hundreds of dams and road culverts blocking fish from their spawning grounds. Commercial fishing has expanded rapidly to feed the region and the world. Fish numbers drop, and keep dropping.

Where does that put us today? Well much has changed on the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that flow to it from Virginia. One change is a return back to that early wisdom. We are removing obstacles to fish migration so fish can reach their spawning habitat and produce new generations of fish. Our goal is to reverse the trend in declining fish populations and create truly sustainable fisheries.

Albert Spells with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Charles City, Virginia and Alan Weaver, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), have been working together for years, alongside the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers, dam owners, local watershed groups and towns to re-open Virginia’s rivers to migratory fish like American shad and river herring. And restore our fishing heritage.

Over 1000 miles of river have been re-opened to migratory fish in Virginia in the past decade thanks to these collaborative efforts.

In 2005, the Embrey Dam (built in 1910) was removed, re-opening 106 miles on the Rappahannock River and gaining a full 186 miles of free-flowing river. American shad, blueback herring and striped bass have all been found upstream of the former dam.

This past October, a large section of the 150 year-old Monumental Mills Dam on the Hazel River was removed, re-opening 83 miles to fish migrating up from the Rappahannock.

In 2010, the Riverton Dam was removed on the beautiful North Fork Shenandoah River, a tributary to the Potomac River. This opened 95 miles of the North Fork to migratory fish returning from the Chesapeake Bay.


Riverton Dam being removed on the North Fork Shenandoah River. Credit: Alan Weaver/ VDGIF.

After removing the Harvell Dam in 2014, over 127 miles of the Appomattox River, a tributary to the James River, were open to migratory fish for the first time in 130 years.


Over 127 miles of the Appomattox River is open to fish now that the Harvell Dam has been removed. Credit: Alan Weaver/VDGIF

The Harvell Dam removal was a high priority for migratory fish restoration in Virginia because it was the first obstruction on the Appomattox, and therefore, a critical fish passage site. Just one year after it’s removal, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring were found upstream of the former dam.


Hickory shad found upstream in the Appomattox River one year after the Harvell Dam was removed. Credit: Robert Willis/VDGIF

A strong fisheries can help generate a strong economy. And removing barriers to fish migration will allow a great number of fishes to recover – if we adhere to water quality and fishing regulations.

Albert and Alan will continue to work together to remove obsolete and hazardous dams, and install fish-friendly culverts that allow more water (and fish) to pass. Fewer roads and bridges will wash-out during high water events; fewer accidents will occur around obsolete dams and more fish will thrive in the rivers of Virginia.

And more people will enjoy the music of flowing rivers, enjoy fishing and boating, and know that beneath the water’s surface is a world of fishes that are fun to watch and good to eat.

Happy 40th, Endangered Species Act!


We know… 40th birthdays are branded as “over the hill.”

But when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, we just don’t agree (that’s not saying we agree that other 40th birthdays are over the hill, either!). With much of its work just getting started, the Endangered Species Act is much more “40 and fierce.”

Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work, often requiring substantial time and resources. Just as it takes a long time for species to reach the brink of extinction, it takes a long time to bring them back. Many of the endangered species that have fully recovered were the original species protected under the ESA.

Forty years of hard, dedicated work by federal and state agencies, state and local governments, conservation organizations and private citizens have reaped much success for threatened and endangered wildlife.

We’ve got a lot to be proud of. As we near the anniversary on Friday, we’re celebrating the wildlife that has benefited from the protection of one of the world’s most important conservation laws.

Here are some Northeast state-by-state snapshots (click the links for stories).


Endangered roseate terns. Habitat for northeastern U.S. roseate terns has been greatly reduced by human activity and development on barrier islands, predation and competition from expanding numbers of large gulls. Credit: USFWS

CONNECTICUT provides homes to nearly 20 imperiled species, from the roseate tern to the bog turtle and Indiana bat. A portion of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge has protected threatened tiger beetles (and migrating songbirds); restoration of Long Beach West returned the barrier beach to the threatened piping plover and other shorebirds; and a team is watching over one of the last remaining healthy populations of the endangered dwarf wedgemussel, found in the Lower Farmington River.


A loggerhead hatchling emerges from its nest and begins its seaward journey. The greatest cause of decline and the continuing primary threat to loggerhead turtle populations worldwide is incidental capture in fishing gear, primarily in longlines and gillnets, but also in trawls, traps and pots, and dredges. Credit: USFWS

DELAWARE provides homes to over 15 imperiled species, from the swamp pink lily to the shortnose sturgeon and nesting loggerhead sea turtles. Biologists translocated endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and just last year, our analysis showed the species has recovered and suggested removing it from the endangered species list! The Delaware Bay is arguably the most important spring stopover for one of the longest-distance migrants in the entire animal kingdom, the red knot. We proposed to protect the knot as threatened under the ESA, and the Delaware conservation community is out to ensure the Bay continues to provide that crucial place for resting and feeding.


This photo of a Canada lynx kitten is from den surveys conducted by our agency and Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the boreal forests of northern Maine. Credit: USFWS

MAINE also provides homes to over 15 imperiled species, from the Furbish’s lousewort plant to the Canada lynx and spawning Atlantic sturgeon.  Maine’s only cottontail, the New England cottontail, is a candidate under review for endangered species protection, and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, along with other partners and private landowners, is restoring its young forest habitat. Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery has cultured Atlantic salmon for over a century, and partnering organizations are working on restoring the free-flowing rivers, such as the Penobscot, on which endangered salmon depend.


The greatest threats to the bog turtle are the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitat from wetland alteration, development, pollution, invasive species and advanced plant growth. The species is also threatened by poaching—collection for illegal wildlife trade. Credit: USFWS

MARYLAND provides homes to more than 25 imperiled species, from the Maryland darter to the sandplain gerardia plant and Kenk’s ampipod. Landowners have partnered with our agency and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve their wetlands for North America’s tiniest turtle, the threatened bog turtle. In 1967, when the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel was listed, it could be found in only a handful of counties in the state, and after officials closed the hunting season and re-introduced it to several large farms, populations began to thrive! The Puritan tiger beetle has only four populations, one which is on eroding cliffs in Calvert County and another along the Sassafras River. An interagency team and federal grant funding has made substantial progress in meeting the needs of landowners while promoting the species recovery.


Piping plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered to a 20th-century peak in the 1940s. The current population decline is attributed to increased development and recreational use of beaches since the end of World War II. Credit: Diane Fletcher, Friends of Ellisville Marsh

MASSACHUSETTS provides homes to 20 imperiled species, from the northern red-bellied cooter to the roseate tern and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Friends of Ellisville Marsh have provided a community model to protect piping plovers, and volunteers like Judy Besancon on Newbury Beach keep an eye on plover nests. Every year, volunteers scan the Cape Cod beaches to save stranded, endangered sea turtles. Populations of the state’s only native rabbit, the New England cottontail, have dwindled as its young, regenerating forest habitat has disappeared. Experts are using controlled burns to restore this early stage of forest in places like Mashpee.


The Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species, is a small butterfly that lives in oak savannas and pine barren ecosystems from eastern Minnesota and eastward to the Atlantic seaboard. Habitat throughout the range of the Karner blue has been lost through human activity to suppress wildfire, cultivate forests and develop communities. Credit: USFWS

NEW HAMPSHIRE provides homes to nearly 15 imperiled species, from the northeastern bulrush to the Karner blue butterfly and red knot. A strong partnership to protect habitat and rear seeds in captivity kept the quarter-sized Robbins’ cinquefoil flower from extinction and ensured its future on the slopes of the White Mountains. In areas across southern New Hampshire, efforts are underway to conserve the natural habitat of the region’s only native rabbit, the New England cottontail. Much of the life history of the endangered small whorled pogonia remains a mystery, but recent efforts in New Hampshire have clued biologists in to this rare woodland orchid’s specific habitat needs.

Tagged red knot. Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Some red knots migrate up to 9,300 miles one way, from the southern tip of South America, along the U.S. coast and up to the Canadian Arctic. Changing climate conditions are already affecting the bird’s food supply, the timing of its migration and its breeding habitat in the Arctic. The shorebird also is losing areas along its range due to sea level rise, shoreline projects, and development. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

NEW JERSEY provides homes to over 20 imperiled species, from the Hirst brothers’ panic grass to the red knot and the Knieskern’s beaked-rush plant. In 1993, biologists confirmed a newly discovered colony of endangered Indiana bats in an abandoned mine near Hibernia, and surveys at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge have helped us understand the impacts of white-nose syndrome on the species. New Jersey almost lost its bald eagle population by 1980, but state and federal wildlife agencies creatively put the eagle on the road to recovery. Law enforcement have helped protect threatened bog turtles through investigation of ESA violations, and partnerships with private landowners and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service have improved and protected their unique wetland habitat.


The bald eagle holds the greatest endangered species success story, recovering from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to more than 10,000 nesting pairs today. Credit: USFWS

NEW YORK provides homes to nearly 30 imperiled species, from the Houghton’s goldenrod plant to the clubshell mussel and (recently proposed for ESA protection) northern long-eared bat. Researchers are finding ways to cultivate the threatened American hart’s-tongue fern in the lab and plant them at suitable sites in New York, home to the largest population of this fern in the entire country! It’s not easy to love a rattlesnake (though we do!), but the eastern massasauga’s numbers here have dwindled. Biologists are returning what it needs most — a home. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve, National Grid, our agency and the state wildlife agency have come together to protect habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly (the Preserve releases captive-bred butterflies, too!). Last, certainly the tiniest and most difficult to pronounce but not least, is the Chittenango ovate amber snail. Partners are keeping an eye on the only known living population of this snail.


Kind of looks like a face, right? The threatened small whorled pogonia is one of the nation’s rarest native orchids. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, NC Orchid

PENNSYLVANIA provides homes to more than 15 imperiled species, from the Virginia spiraea plant to the sheepnose and snuffbox freshwater mussels. Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established, in part, to protect threatened bog turtles and their habitat; this year, a natural resource damages settlement helped add 90 acres to the refuge! Additionally, a voluntary program helps landowners restore their wetlands with bog turtle habitat. Our Northeast Fishery Center scientists are following endangered Atlantic sturgeon in hopes of protecting and restoring their habitat. Last year, we worked with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and other folks to replace a bridge and transplant the protected mussels in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia waters.


The New England cottontail, New England’s only native rabbit, is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The species has declined primarily due to loss of its young forest and shrubland habitat. Credit: USFWS

RHODE ISLAND provides homes to nearly 15 imperiled species, from the sandplain gerardia plant to the shortnose sturgeon and foraging leatherback sea turtles. The Roger Williams Park Zoo runs captive breeding programs for both the New England cottontail and American burying beetle, whose last remaining wild beetle population in New England is on Block Island. Avalonia Land Conservancy, our agency and locals have found a way to balance recreational use and conservation of threatened piping plovers and other shorebirds at Sandy Point Island.

The Jesup's milk vetch. Credit: Lisa Mattei, New England Wild Flower Society

The Jesup’s milk vetch is found in only three locations along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont. Credit: Lisa Mattei, New England Wild Flower Society

VERMONT provides homes to six imperiled species, including the dwarf wedgemussel, the northeastern bulrush plant and the (recently proposed for ESA protection) northern long-eared bat. What were threatened Canada lynx doing in Vermont last year? Biologists are surveying for these secretive creatures to understand the best ways to conserve the species. Ice, floods, drought, and invasions–and the endangered Jesup’s milk-vetch hangs on, thanks to a helping hand from wildlife agencies and partners. In 2001, biologists found that Indiana bats come from New York to summer in the Lake Champlain Valley; this information would become vital when white-nose syndrome hit years later.

Holding mussels

Endangered mussels bound for release in the Powell River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

VIRGINIA provides homes to more than 70 imperiled species, from the Virginia sneezeweed to the spruce-fire moss spider and Carolina northern flying squirrel. The yellowfin madtom was thought to be extinct here; after its rediscovery, biologists set out to ensure its future in the state, and its range in one river may now extend more than 60 miles! Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge has supported nesting sea turtles for 30 years on the shore of Virginia Beach. The Madison cave isopod isn’t cute and fluffy, but protecting this crustacean has meant safeguarding our water supply. In September 2010, biologists, students and other volunteers put on the largest release of endangered mussels to date in the eastern U.S. (and the work continues!).


The entire range of the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander is 935 square miles, the approximate area of Kanawha County in West Virginia. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, Kerry Wixted

WEST VIRGINIA provides homes to more than 20 imperiled species, from the shale barren rock cress plant to to the pink mucket mussel and Virginia big-eared bat. Remember those mussels that were moved to West Virginia from a Pennsylvania bridge project? They included the endangered northern riffleshell. We worked with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to install a bat-friendly gate on Trout Cave, a hotspot for hibernating endangered Virginia big-eared bats. We’re also part of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, which continues to restore the high-elevation red spruce habitat needed by the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and recovered West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

Whew! Like, we said, a lot to be proud of! And we’re gearing up for a whole suite of efforts in 2014.

Forty and fierce, definitely.

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.

Atlantic sturgeon return home!

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!