Atlantic Sturgeon

The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus oxyrinchus) is a member of the Acipenseridae family and is among one of the oldest fish species in the world. Its range extends from New Brunswick, Canada to the eastern coast of Florida. It was in great abundance when the first settlers came to America, but has since declined due to over-fishing and water pollution. It is considered threatened, endangered and even extinct in much of its original habitats. The fish can reach sixty years of age, fifteen feet in length and over eight hundred pounds in weight.

Physical appearance

Rather than having true scales, the Atlantic sturgeon has five rows of bony plates known as scutes. Specimens weighing over eight hundred pounds and nearly fifteen feet in length have been recorded, but they traditionally grow to be six to eight feet and no more than three hundred pounds. Its coloration ranges from bluish-black and olive green on its back to white on its underside. It has a longer snout than other sturgeons and has four barbells (whisker-like organs) at the side of its mouth.

Life cycle

Atlantic sturgeon under six years of age stay in the brackish water where they were born before moving into the ocean.

Atlantic sturgeon may take anywhere from seven to twenty-three years to become sexually mature, depending on the sex and temperature of the water. When mature, they travel upstream to spawn. The females may lay 800,000 to 3.75 million eggs in a single year, but do so every two to six years. After laying their eggs, females will travel back downstream, but males may remain upstream after spawning until the water becomes too cold to remain. At that point, they return downstream and may return to the ocean, where they stay near the coastline.

Sturgeon can often live to the age of sixty years old. Accounts of sturgeon over the age of one hundred was not uncommon in colonial times.

Economic history

Originally, the Atlantic sturgeon was considered a worthless fish. Its rough skin would often rip nets, keeping fishermen from catching more profitable fish. However, when products derived from the Atlantic sturgeon were found, their popularity quickly rose. The colonies soon found Atlantic sturgeon to be a profitable resource, second in profit only to lobsters. Other fisheries along the Atlantic coast harvested them for use as food, a leather material used in clothing and bookbinding, and isinglass, a gelatinous substance used in clarifying jellies, glues, windows, wines and beer. In the late 1800s, seven million pounds of sturgeon meat were exported from the US per year. Within years, however, that amount dropped to 22,000 pounds. The number later rose to about 200,000 pounds a year in the 1950s. Now, sturgeons are primarily used for the production of caviar.