Face to Face With an Ancient Fish

Topics: Fisheries, Southeast Coast

On a warm summer morning in 1994 I found myself on the Hudson River hunting for the massive and ancient Atlantic sturgeon that spawn and feed in the river. A friend who was a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory was working with fisherman engaged in the last open fishery on the Atlantic coast for the sturgeon.  She was studying the otoliths, small bones found in the inner ear of bony fish like the sturgeon. The otoliths form growth rings, like trees, which enable researchers to determine the age of the fish and how much time it spent in the ocean and in the river.


A juvenile sturgeon caught in a river in Delaware.

I went out with one of the fishermen to set thousands of feet of gill net across the river to try to catch one of the huge fish.  The mesh on the gill nets was incredibly large, big enough for large red drum or striped bass to freely swim through, but the right size to catch the 8- to 12-foot fish. We set four nets in the river in the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge.  After letting the nets fish for several hours, we pulled them up. The fisherman told me to look for large bubbles as we pulled the nets as an indicator of a fish in the net.

Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any that day, but I did get to see some fish that had been caught earlier. The 6- to 8-foot long fish were impressive in their bulk and their bony scales, called scutes. The researcher removed the head from the fish to dissect out the otoliths, and the fisherman collected the roe, eggs for caviar and the meat for sale on the market. It was sight with mixed emotions – amazement at the sight of the prehistoric fish; interest in the research; regret for the death of such an incredible fish; and sadness to see the last flicker of a fishing tradition hundreds of years old.

Soon after that fishing trip, this last sturgeon fishery was closed. My friend continued her research in the Chesapeake Bay, and I got to join her on a different kind of fishing trip. We ventured out on the beautiful Nanticoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. We were looking for some of the hundred juvenile sturgeon that had been tagged and released in the river. We used a hydrophone to listen for the series of unique beeps coming from the tagged fish. We also used a small mesh gill net to see if could capture one of the juveniles.


Otoliths allow researchers to determine the age of bony fish.

Running up the river, stopping every few minutes to drop the hydrophone to listen for a fish, we soon heard the several signals emanating up from the bottom of the river. It was a wonderful sound leading to an imagined view of the fish swimming slowly above the mud, sucking up worms, plants and small fish. We were lucky enough to capture one of the juveniles to measure it and release it back into the river. It was a great joy to hold the 18-inch long wriggling fish with its small scutes.  Later that year 7,000 juvenile sturgeon from a hatchery were released in the river as a test stocking program.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had these experiences with the atlantic Sturgeon. They are an amazing fish that harken back to ancient times. They also point to the future of many of our estuaries and coastal rivers.

The Atlantic sturgeon goes on the federal endangered species list Friday, and we have a chance to bring the fish back if work to restore habitats and water quality, protect the remaining fish and work with the fishing community on tagging and tracking the fish as they move into our rivers. I can see a day where 14-foot long sturgeon are basking in the Cape Fear River, and a sustainable fishery connects communities to the fish again. However we have a long way to go, and the future is by no means certain.

-- Ted Wilgis, coastal education coordinator

  • Read more about the Atlantic sturgeon