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Atlantic Sturgeon
  • A primitive fish, sturgeon has a fossil record dating back 85 million years.
  • Sturgeon may weigh as much 800 pounds and reach lengths of 15 feet.
  • During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Atlantic sturgeon was an important commercial fish in the Chesapeake Bay. Based on more recent landings, the current population is less than 1% of what it was in the early 1900s.


Chesapeake Bay Atlantic sturgeon—Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus—is listed as a federally endangered species, and its catch or possession is prohibited.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Fisheries Management Plan calls for rebuilding at least 20 year classes of Atlantic sturgeon in order to restore the population.

Experimental stocking was conducted in 1994 in the Hudson River (New York state) and in 1996 in the Nanticoke River (on Maryland’s Eastern Shore). Based on positive results in the Nanticoke River, a stocking program is being developed by the state of Maryland.

By-catch: Atlantic sturgeon are incidentally caught by fisheries operations throughout the marine range of the species and in some riverine waters as well. Because Atlantic sturgeon mix extensively in marine waters and may use multiple river systems for spawning, foraging, and other life functions, they are subject to being caught as fishermen target species in other fisheries throughout their range.

Vessel strikes can occur in areas with significant boat traffic, killing or injuring adult sturgeon.

Aquaculture: Hatchery-reared fish are produced for research and for release into the wild.


Photo of Atlantic sturgeon being raised in hatchery; courtesy Mark Matsche, Maryland DNR

Science and Management

NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources has funded the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for projects that tag sturgeon with acoustic transmitters—akin to microchips implanted in pets—that track sturgeon movements in the Bay. The goals of tracking are to identify spawning habitats and perhaps to verify sturgeon reproduction by guiding egg and juvenile sampling surveys.

In addition, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office supports efforts to learn more about Atlantic sturgeon by hosting and maintaining acoustic tag receivers on several NOAA Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System observing buoys. Receivers on CBIBS buoys indicate when a tagged fish swims by that location, prompting an automatic email to researchers. NCBO is also working with partners inside and outside of NOAA to develop a website where researchers who track fish will be able to access data and collaborate with other scientists.

Life History and Habitat

Geographic range: Sturgeon travel through the Bay in April to May as they make their way to freshwater spawning areas in Bay tributaries. In autumn, they leave the Bay for coastal ocean waters. All of the Bay’s large rivers likely once had spawning populations of Atlantic sturgeon.

Habitat: When they are in the Chesapeake Bay, sturgeon generally prefer freshwater river bottom habitat. They spend most of their life in the ocean and tend to travel alone, rather than in schools. The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office field team is involved in projects to map and analyze potential sturgeon spawning habitat.

Sturgeon habitat

Examples of sturgeon's preferred spawning habitatwhich can include gravel—and food—which can include clams

Life span: Atlantic sturgeon can live for more than 60 years.

Food: As bottom feeders, sturgeon use their snouts and barbels (whiskerlike sensory organs—on the Atlantic sturgeon, they protrude from the fish’s “chin” area) to root through sediments, vacuuming up organisms with their soft mouths. Their diet consists of worms, snails, shellfish, crustaceans, and small fish, as well as large amounts of mud and debris.

Growth rate and maximum size: Sturgeon grow slowly, usually reaching five to six feet in length. Males generally weigh up to 90 pounds and females weigh up to 160 pounds.

Reproduction: Males migrate into freshwater during March and April, one month before females. They do not school together but meander singly. Females begin spawning as soon as they reach spawning grounds. Females lay 1 million to 2 ½ million eggs in flowing water up to 60 feet deep.
Males do not reach sexual maturity until they are at least 10 years old, and females take nearly 20 years to mature. Sturgeon typically spawn every three to five years.

Both males and females may remain in the river until late fall before migrating back to the Atlantic. After hatching, the young tend to remain in their natal areas up to five years before beginning their journey to the ocean. Immature Atlantic sturgeon may also wander in and out of the Atlantic coastline.

Sturgeon sonar

The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office's field team uses sonar to help map potential sturgeon spawning habitat in Chesapeake Bay tributaries, such as Marshyhope Creek on the Eastern Shore.

Predators: Because of the bony plates covering its body, adult Atlantic sturgeon have few natural predators. Human activities such as pollution, historic overfishing, and damming of rivers are their greatest threats.

Commercial and recreational fishing interest: Harvesting Atlantic sturgeon was an important industry from colonial times to the early 1900s. During the 17th century, sturgeon meat, eggs, and oil were exported to Europe. The most valuable part of the fish was its eggs, or roe. Prepared as caviar, this delicacy was in high demand in Europe. The delicate meat, comparable to pork or swordfish, was smoked and eaten. Even sturgeon air bladders were valuable; they were used to make isinglass (a clear gelatin), jellies, clarifying agents for beverages, plasters, waterproofing agents, adhesives, and lubricants. By 1850, sturgeon meat and roe became popular in the United States as well. By the late 1800s, landings of Atlantic sturgeon were as high as 7 million pounds combined from all the states where they were harvested.

Traditionally, Atlantic sturgeon fishermen worked the Hudson River in New York, the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, the Delaware River in Delaware, the Potomac and St. Mary’s Rivers in Maryland, and the York and James Rivers in Virginia. They used large drifting gill nets, some 1,500 feet long and 21 feet deep with a mesh of 13 inches. 

In the Chesapeake Bay, sturgeon catch peaked in 1890s at a record level of more than 700,000 pounds. By the 1920s, the average annual harvest was reduced by more than 90 percent; total landings were reported at only 22,000 pounds. More recently in the Chesapeake Bay, sturgeon were being caught at levels likely less than 2,200 pounds per year.

Then in 1998, the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission closed the entire coast to Atlantic sturgeon fishing for the next four decades. Stock assessments indicated that only remnant populations of Atlantic sturgeon remain along much of the East Coast.

Distinguishing characteristics: The Atlantic sturgeon has a brown, tan, or bluish-black body and a whitish belly. It has no scales, but five rows of bony plates, called scutes, cover its head and body: one along the back, one on either side and two along the belly.

Did You Know?
  • Part of the Atlantic sturgeon’s scientific name, oxyrhynchus, means “sharp snout.”
  • Sturgeons are the largest fish native to the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Sturgeons were abundant when English settlers arrived in the Bay region in the 1600s. They were a reliable source of food for the settlers most of the year.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially declared the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species in 2012. It is illegal to fish for, catch, or harvest Atlantic sturgeon or their eggs.

Updated June 2016