Chessie & Co.: We miss the big guys when they go


October 01, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Fishing in the bay, you know, is like a box of chocolates; you never know just what you're going to get.

Ben Florence still recalls the surprise and mystery of what he snagged on the Potomac River one late April day more than a decade ago.

Florence, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, was drifting a gill net with a colleague from a 16-foot johnboat to gather spawning rockfish for state hatchery efforts.

As they worked the net in, a waterman's workboat passed by, and Florence remembers saying its propeller must have caught their meshes, because net and johnboat began moving upriver, against a running tide.

But the workboat quickly faded into the distance.

And something in the net, deep down, continued to drag the johnboat upriver for another 20 minutes before breaking free.

A large shark could have done that (or a manatee, perhaps); but such visitors to the bay would be highly improbable during the inhospitably cold water temperatures of April.

Florence thinks it had to have been an Atlantic sturgeon, a rare old giant, relict survivor of the largest species of fish that ever inhabited Chesapeake Bay.

Few people alive today have ever seen a sturgeon in the bay. Every few years, biologists in Maryland and Virginia get reports:

A 4-footer caught accidentally by netters in Virginia's Yeocomico River; a 6-footer killed by a tugboat in the James River; a specimen of nearly 8 feet floating, dead, off the lower Eastern Shore; smaller ones taken in pound nets off Kent Island.

Florence finally saw one, weighing some 300 pounds, netted accidentally up the Nanticoke River near Sharptown, Md. The waterman who caught it had called DNR: Did they have any old recipes for preparing caviar, he wanted to know?

Even the largest of such reported sturgeon are only of middling size and age compared with their species' potential -- lengths to nearly 15 feet and weights of nearly 800 pounds have been recorded.

Ages of up to 60 years are known, and it is believed that female sturgeon in the bay would not even reach sexual maturity until nearly 20 years and 7 feet in length.

If there is anything we know to exist that might be a candidate for "Chessie," it is probably an ancient sturgeon, with its long, whiskered snout and five rows of armored plates down each side.

Certainly it would be an unforgettable sight to see a big one throw itself clear of the water, as old reports say was the sturgeon's habit.

An American officer during the Revolution died after one of the big fish jumped onto him as he rowed across the Potomac at Georgetown, breaking his thigh and causing fatal complications.

In those days, sturgeon were abundant in most of the bay's larger rivers, where they migrated each spring from the ocean to spawn. A 1905 report puts one as far upstream as the Juniata, a tributary of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania.

Prized for their meat and roe, known as caviar when ripe, sturgeon were caught by Native Americans and colonists alike. During the 1800s, caviar factories operated on the James and Potomac. Sturgeons' air bladders were processed to make isinglass.

But by 1920, the great fish were well on their way to vanishing from view in the Chesapeake (other fisheries for the species in the Hudson and some southeastern rivers continue today, though vastly reduced in size and quantity of fish).

The beginning of the end on the Chesapeake came in 1890, a period when gourmet and restaurant demand put destructive pressure on a number of bay delicacies -- terrapin, canvasback duck, oysters. That year, 750,000 pounds of sturgeon were caught here. By 1920, the take was less than 20,000 pounds.

Pollution and dams also depressed the sturgeons' numbers; and, despite decades of virtually no fishing pressure, it has never again flourished here.

The real marvel, biologists say, is that it hasn't gone extinct in the bay. And maybe the big fish's tenacity is why it still kindles hope among biologists of a comeback.

"There is more interest in sturgeon than I have ever seen," says Dick St. Pierre, a biologist whose agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has successfully spawned some 5,000 young sturgeon at a Pennsylvania hatchery, using Hudson River fish.

Those young are destined for stocking back in the Hudson; but Florence, now in charge of Maryland's state-of-the-art Manning fish hatchery in Southern Maryland, says "we definitely have the capability of spawning sturgeon here."

A lot of questions need answering before that could happen: could we find enough mature Chesapeake sturgeon to get eggs for the hatchery? Would eggs from other river systems be genetically suited for restocking here?

Later this month David Secor, a fish ecologist at the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons, plans a meeting to pull together what is known about sturgeon in the bay, and discuss strategies for restoration.

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