It Once Swam with Dinosaurs, but is This 800-Pound Fish Now Doomed?

Washingtonians might not realize it, but a 150-million-year-old species is slipping into oblivion right under their noses.

Atlantic sturgeon, the pointy-snouted giant that can reach lengths of 14 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds, once swam with dinosaurs. The prehistoric fish was tenacious enough to survive the mass extinction more than 60 million years ago that put the Triceratops in textbooks.

But sturgeon are no match for the modern threats of pollution, overfishingdredging, and declining ecosystem health, which together have pushed the fish to near extinction in rivers all along the Atlantic seaboard. One hundred years ago, 20,000 spawning female sturgeon inhabited the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries; now the James River is visited annually by just 300 sturgeon. In the Delaware River, 300 females swim upriver to spawn, down from 180,000 in 1890.

For millions of years, sturgeon migrated up and down the Atlantic coast, returning to rivers like the Potomac to spawn. Sturgeon were a staple fish for Native Americans and early settlers on the coast, coveted for both the meat, which was pickled or smoked, along with sturgeon eggs, used in caviar. Captain John Smith once described the James River in Virginia as having more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog and man.”

In a span of just 100 years, annual catches of sturgeon went from tens of thousands of “monster” fish down to a mere handful. Reviving the sturgeon population has been a persistent challenge. Atlantic sturgeon can live for up to 60 years, and like humans, they begin breeding only when they become teenagers.

“Sturgeon management is extremely difficult given their age of sexual maturity,” says Bryan King, associate director of the District Department of the Environment, who sits on the regulatory board that manages the fish. “You can liken sturgeon regeneration to forest regeneration. It’s going to take 20 years to see anything significant.”

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