Prehistoric Atlantic Sturgeon That Survived Mass Extinctions May Not Survive Man

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — They’ve been off limits to fishing for more than a decade, but it hasn’t stopped their decline. Now Atlantic sturgeon have been officially declared endangered.

Alex DeMetrick reports a fish that has survived mass extinctions may not survive man.

The University of Maryland’s Environmental Research Center is one of the few places you can see Atlantic sturgeon. For the past decade it’s been trying to keep the species alive, after a very long run in the wild.

“They pretty much haven’t changed since the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were around,” said Angie Hengst, UM research assistant.

But numbers have gotten so low, the federal government has declared Atlantic sturgeon endangered.  The university’s supply comes from watermen who catch a handful each year in the bay, but aren’t allowed to keep.

Nearly all are young, and that’s hard for a program hoping to breed more.

“They are not easy to breed. The main issue is because they mature so late.  You know we get these smaller sturgeon that might be only a few years old, and it might be 10 years before they mature,” said Erin Markin, UM research assistant.

It’s just one part of their prehistoric nature.

“It’s a tube mouth.  It comes down and sucks up food. It has no teeth.  Inside their mouth are two hard plates: one on the top and one on the bottom.  That just crushes food,” said Hengst.

And it’s as food that trouble started for sturgeon.  The pressure on these fish began a century ago, when demand for their eggs for the caviar trade exploded.

“When they’re collecting, they actually have to sacrifice fish to get the eggs, so the females are killed in order to collect the caviar.  So it’s removing a lot of fish from the population,” said Markin.

At the same time pollution in the bay was increasing, further pressuring reproduction for a very slow breeder.

Despite nearly a decade of trying, the University of Maryland has yet to successfully breed more sturgeon.

More from Alex DeMetrick
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