Area populations of Atlantic sturgeon may be rebounding, leading state agencies to wonder if federal officials jumped the gun in declaring the fish an endangered species.
"There’s a general trend, at least in some of our independent surveys, that show relative abundance of Atlantic sturgeon increasing, at least in the
The National Marine Fisheries Service in February 2012 declared the
In its listing proposal, the agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that Atlantic sturgeon population numbers in the
"When they were listed as endangered, there wasn’t as much information on the sturgeon populations as we’re starting to find out now," Batsavage said. "We’ve done some research by tagging and tracking where the sturgeon go, and we catch them in our independent gillnet surveys."
Data from those studies suggest that the sturgeon have rebounded, but definitive information is hard to come by. Sturgeon are migratory fish that spend the majority of their lives in saltwater but are hatched and return to spawn in freshwater environments. The fish are divided into five distinct population segments, and because they move around so much, state researchers are never sure if the sturgeon they’re seeing are from the correct area.
"It makes it a little tricky," Batsavage said. "Coast-wide, you’re not really always sure what you’re dealing with or which population segment you’re interacting with unless you do genetic work. I think what’s going to shed a lot of light on this question as far as what kind of recovery we’ve seen is a stock assessment that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is working on."
That stock assessment, set to be released at the end of 2014, is the first comprehensive population estimate for Atlantic sturgeon since the late 1990s. That assessment resulted in a moratorium on sturgeon harvest, a conservation measure that remains in place today. Commission board members pushed for an updated estimate following concerns over the endangered species listing, said Michael Waine, fishery management plan coordinator.
"Following the listing, the board wants to know where this species is relative to stock health," he said. "That is the reason we are currently going through a benchmark stock assessment."
The assessment is a complicated process that involves, among other things, examining mountains of data and participating in a set of workshops to analyze the information and confirm its validity. Once completed, the assessment goes to a review board, which decides if the results are scientifically sound. Should the assessment show a substantial increase in population numbers, officials could push to have the species removed from the endangered list, though analysts involved in the process aren’t predicting any specific outcome at this point.
"We are working very diligently on this and making sure we investigate the resource as completely as possible," Waine said. "That’s really the focus of where we’re at right now."