Atlantic sturgeon population rebounding

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 12:00 PM.

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 Albemarle Sound area," said Chris Batsavage, section chief for protected resources for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. "A lot of people in the division think that with 15 to 20 years of management efforts to protect sturgeon, we should see some positive increases in those stocks."

The National Marine Fisheries Service in February 2012 declared the Cape Fear River ’s population of the large, bony-scaled fish an endangered species. The ruling also included the Delaware and Hudson rivers and the sturgeon stocks in the Carolinas , South Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay .

In its listing proposal, the agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that Atlantic sturgeon population numbers in the Carolina region had declined to less than 3 percent of historical levels. Data collected by state agencies seems to suggest otherwise.

"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."



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