Tag Archives: rivers

Men dressed in colonial wear in a boat with an American flag

Silent witnesses to the historic Christmas night crossing of the Delaware


Fisheries Biologist Catherine Gatenby dishes about fish!

On December 25, 1776 the watermen of Massachusetts navigated George Washington and his Continental Army across the Delaware River in the dark of the night. Below, huddling together in the depths of the river, were likely hundreds of witnesses to this historic event, shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum).

Men dressed in colonial wear in a boat with an American flag

Reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas. Credit: Bucks County CVB.

At 55 pounds and five feet long, shortnose sturgeon are large fish, but they are the smallest of the three species of sturgeon in eastern North America. Like their cousins the Atlantic sturgeon, they once occurred by the thousands in coastal rivers from Canada to Florida.  Unlike Atlantic sturgeon, however, the shortnose spends most of its life in rivers – even in the cold of December.

By the end of the 19th century, overharvest had seriously depleted shortnose sturgeon populations. Damming rivers and using them as dumping grounds during the industrialization of the U.S. were final blows to sturgeon and their habitat.  By 1967 only a few remnant populations existed, so shortnose sturgeon were included on the original endangered species list. 

A large fish with a flattened nose lurks.

Shortnose sturgeon. Credit: USFWS

Today, after 40 years of protection by the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, shortnose sturgeon seem to be doing better in northern rivers. The Hudson River population alone has increased by over 400 percent since 1973.

 Shortnose sturgeon have been found again in the Penobscot River in Maine.  “Finding them at all is big; they haven’t been seen in the Penobscot since 1970” said Dr. Joe Zydlewski, Maine Cooperative Research Unit, U.S. Geological Survey – as he quickly suggested I speak with his wife, Dr. Gail Zydlewski, at the University of Maine.

In 2005 Dr. Zydlewski began a tagging program to monitor shortnose migratory behaviors and use of rivers in Maine after a fisherman hauled in a shortnose from the Penobscot. She and her team found that shortnose sturgeon in the Penobscot may migrate to the Kennebec River to spawn. 

Once upon a time, the Penobscot River had huge populations of spawning shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon and the fish may yet live happily ever after there. Removal of the Veazie and other dams will restore access to 100 percent of historic spawning habitat for all sturgeon in the Penobscot River.  

A biologist handles a fish in a trough.

This shortnose sturgeon was caught in the Delaware River during a population health assessment
by the Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Credit: USFWS

In the Delaware River, shortnose sturgeon may be rebounding as well, helping to repopulate the Potomac River via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.  Shortnose were thought to be gone from the Potomac, but fishermen have reported catching them in the past 10 years and scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified a shortnose making a pre-spawning migration run in the Potomac River. “Although, we aren’t yet certain whether shortnose are spawning in the Potomac, we are certain suitable habitat exists for foraging, wintering and spawning,” said Mike Mangold, Service Biologist.

A biologist handles a fish on a dock.

Shortnose sturgeon captured in the upper Chesapeake Bay by a commercial fisherman was tagged to monitor behavior and identify potential suitable habitat. Credit: USFWS

In 1992, the Service’s Maryland Fisheries Resource Office began managing the Atlantic Coast Cooperative Sturgeon Tagging program. “We are building a better understanding of how populations are faring in the wild, and where to focus efforts on restoring additional habitat for sturgeon” said Sheila Eyler, program coordinator. 

As we reflect back upon the historic crossing of the Delaware this holiday season, let’s also reflect how fortunate we are to enjoy the heritage of our native fish populations and  healthy, rich and productive rivers now and always.  

A man in an orange jacket holds a huge lake sturgeon with a tag.

Bringing back an old fish to a young river: lake sturgeon in the Niagara

Head of a primitive-looking fish

Credit: USFWS

Last week we heard from Bethany Holbrook about successfully stocking lake sturgeon in the St. Lawrence River in New York, part of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) to restore lake sturgeon populations.

Fish stocking is one of many tools biologists use to bring back fish populations  This week, Fisheries Biologist and Communication Coordinator Catherine Gatenby highlights how monitoring a naturally reproducing population in the Niagra River can help recover this ancient species.

Lake sturgeon are descendants of one of the oldest families of fishes on the planet!  They first appeared about 100,000 years ago, just as dinosaurs began to disappear.  Once abundant in the Hudson Bay, the St. Lawrence River, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basins, including the young Niagara River (“only” 5, 500 – 12,500 years old!), lake sturgeon almost went extinct due to over-fishing and loss of suitable spawning habitat.

A woman in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform and an orange life preserver holds a lake sturgeon.

Lake sturgeon have many primitive characteristics, such as armor-like plates, or “scutes”, along their backs and sides. Credit:USFWS

For several years the Service and NYDEC have monitored lake sturgeon and their habitat in the Niagara River, where  promising results suggest that a goal of self-sustaining populations is within reach.

“We are seeing recovery of some wild populations that use the Niagara River. We saw the first measurable runs of reproducing lake sturgeon in the lower Niagara River this past summer than have been seen in a long time”, said Dr. Dimitry Gorsky of the Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.  “Indeed, the population in the lower Niagara River is larger than biologists expected, with a large number of younger fish (less than 30 years of age) preparing for reproduction, indicating this population could become self-sustaining if conditions remain suitable.”

A man in an orange jacket holds a huge lake sturgeon with a tag.

Dr. Gorsky, the Service and NYDEC continue to monitor wild lake sturgeon movements and populations using tagged fish. Credit:USFWS

The NYDEC observed a similar aged population suggesting reproduction in the upper Niagara River as well.

This summer, Lower Great Lakes biologists spotted several lake sturgeon in the shallows of the shorelines of the lower Niagara River Gorge during the spawning season, suggesting that spawning might be occurring there, too!

We’ll continue to keep a close watch on these growing wild populations and their habitat to see what conditions are contributing to their success and use this information to promote self-sustaining lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes watershed.  These findings give us hope for the recovery of lake sturgeon in the Niagara and other river systems.

Visit the Lower Greats Lake Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office website and Facebook page  and the Service’s Midwest Region’s website for more information on Great Lakes restoration and outreach activities.

A man and two women stand in a river with a hose shooting tiny fish into the water

Joining forces in the Charles River to bring back shad fishery

July 18, 2013: Yesterday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state of Massachusetts, and the Charles River Watershed Association came together to release young American shad fish into the Charles River. On hand from the Service were Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber, Deputy Assistant Regional Director for Fisheries Bill Archambault and Northeast Supervisory Fish Biologist Joe McKeon of the  Eastern New England Fishery Resources Complex.

A man and two women stand in a river with a hose shooting tiny fish into the water

Wendi Weber (center) joins partners Bob Zimmerman and Mary Griffin in releasing shad into the Charles River. Copyright: Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe

Watch video of event!

“Go forth and propagate!”  proclaimed Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, as quoted in a Boston Globe article about the stocking event. Griffin and Bob Zimmerman of the Charles River Watershed Association stood in the water shoulder-to-shoulder with Wendi Weber, connected by a large hose they grasped in their hands. The hose delivered baby shad from a North Atlleboro National Fish Hatchery truck to their new home in the Charles River.

Once abundant in rivers such as the Charles, American shad numbers have decreased in the last century due to dams, pollution and overfishing. Improvements in water quality, fish passage and fishing regulations make restoring shad populations possible in the Charles.

The restoration project is a long-term collaborative effort between Massachusetts and the Service’s Eastern New England Fishery Complex. Goals are to return a viable population of shad to the river and create a local sport fishery.

“This project is special because the Charles is such an important river to the people in Boston,” said Weber. “We are pleased to work with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Charles River Watershed Association and others to enhance American shad populations and improve habitat for other migratory fish.”

Read  more from the Boston Globe story about the stocking or a press release.

Two fisheries biologist stand next to a portable tank. One is measuring an adult fish while the other notes data on a clipboard.

Adult shad are collected from the Merrimack River and tank spawned in hatcheries for stocking the Charles and other rivers. Credit:USFWS

Adult shad are collected from the Merrimack River and tank spawned in hatcheries for stocking the Charles and other rivers.

Spawning pool for mature American shad at North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery. Fertilized eggs flow through a drain to a control box (upper right) where they are collected. Credit: Catherine J. Hibbard/USFWS

A man sthands next to a tank the size of a hot tub with egg cylinders hanging around it.

Eggs are placed in cylinders hung around tanks. When the shad larvae hatch in about 4 days, they swim into the tanks through chutes at the top of the cylinders. Credit: Catherine J. Hibbard/USFWS

Thousands of tiny fish swim over and around a screen.

Shad larvae are marked with oxytetracycline and released after a few days, for a turnaround time of about a week from egg to release. These young shad were reared at Nashua National Fish Hatchery. Credit: USFWS