Prize catch of the week Sturgeon jackpot: Two fishermen caught three shortnose sturgeon this week. For a fish that's been on the endangered species list, it was an embarrassment of riches.

April 05, 1996|By JED KIRSCHBAUM | JED KIRSCHBAUM,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- The shortnose sturgeon is a little thing, as sturgeon go, and so easily caught that here on the Chesapeake it was fished into oblivion a century ago. It's such a rare fish in the bay that the last confirmed sighting of one was in 1986.

So when two fishermen who work the waters at the head of the bay checked their nets Tuesday and found one, it seemed like pretty big news. When they went back the next day and found two more, it was like hitting the sturgeon jackpot.

For a fish that's long been on the endangered species list, it was an embarrassment of riches. It was a mob. It was a crush of shortnoses.

Now, neither Richard Gestewitz Sr. and Henry Pratt, partners and owners of a boat called the Pot Luck II, believes that sturgeon are what you might call exciting fish. They're dim-witted bottom feeders. Cartilaginous and bony-plated, sturgeon were around before the dinosaurs, and the most dramatic thing they do is to make a sort of burping noise when handled out of the water.

But the two Cecil County men knew they had something worth holding on to. The bigger Atlantic sturgeon is rare enough as a species -- sufficiently so that the state will pay a fisherman $100 for each live one he turns over for tagging and release -- but they were pretty sure they had a troika of exquisitely rare shortnoses splashing around in a ring net they set up off the dock.

They called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Annapolis, and yesterday a team headed by Jorgen Skjeveland went tearing up VTC Interstate 95 to see what they could make of it all.

Mr. Skjeveland boarded the Pot Luck II, reached over the side, grabbed the first sturgeon, which promptly showed it was no worse for wear for having been caught and started bucking and squirming so much that the burly Norwegian immigrant dropped it -- on deck, fortunately, and not into the water.

"This is a wild one," he called out, retrieving it.

He and a colleague held it down on a scale, measured it at 27

inches and weighed it in at 3.5 pounds. They did the same with the two others -- the biggest, a fully grown adult, was 32 inches long and weighed 6 pounds -- and then made the official pronouncement: shortnoses. No question about it.

"You did good!" Mr. Skjeveland shouted out to Mr. Gestewitz, who by this time was busy packing the 192 bushels of shad that he and Mr. Pratt had caught along with the sturgeon.

Then, because of the shortnose's delicate endangered status, the Fish and Wildlife team did the only thing it could do, legally: It put the fish back in the water. No tagging, no DNA tests. Just a fond farewell.

May not be rare

"I thought they didn't exist in the Upper Bay anymore," Mr. Skjeveland said. "We may have to change gears a little. It may not be as rare as what we thought."

He could well be right.

Nancy Haley, a fisheries biologist who heads a group called the Shortnose Sturgeon Recovery Team, under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said yesterday that the shortnose population seems to be thriving on the Hudson River, even as the Atlantic sturgeon population declines there.

'Was a matter of time'

The same may be happening on the Delaware River as well, she said, although there have been no good studies there. She speculated that the sturgeon caught by Mr. Pratt and Mr. Gestewitz probably entered the bay through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. She also said she was pleased but not terribly surprised at the catch; recently there have been several unconfirmed reports of shortnose sturgeon being caught in the bay.

"I knew it was just a matter of time," she said.

Mr. Pratt, 55, and Mr. Gestewitz, 52, caught the first sturgeon Tuesday in a pound net -- a sort of funnel and trap arrangement that is staked to the bottom just off shore -- south of the Susquehanna on the Harford County side. They caught the other two in a net Wednesday on White Banks, off Rocky Point in Cecil County.

Bounty awarded

"I don't know what the big deal is," Mr. Gestewitz said, obstinately. Well, he and his partner get to share the $300 bounty, for one thing. For another, it means that proof is finally in hand that a fish long believed to be gone from the Chesapeake has made its appearance there once more.

Ms. Haley said the fish probably were not spawning, which usually takes place about a month from now. The roe of the shortnose, she pointed out, is said to make a finer caviar than that of the Atlantic -- but naturally that's just talk. It's illegal to kill a shortnose.

Mr. Skjeveland said that any anglers who catch either an Atlantic or shortnose sturgeon on a fishing line should not attempt to keep it in captivity, but throw it back and then call in a report to 1-800-448-8322.

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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