3,000 New York sturgeon get new home in Nanticoke River Program to determine if fish once abundant in bay area can return

July 09, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

VIENNA -- Jill Stevenson is listening to fish. Headphones on, yellow data-recording book in hand, she is kneeling on a boat as she monitors the Nanticoke River's newest residents: 3,000 sturgeon born in New York, raised in Pennsylvania and -- as of yesterday -- Maryland residents.

"They just go ding-ding-ding -- it's an intense blip," says Stevenson, a University of Maryland graduate student who is helping her professor, David Secor; the state Department of Natural Resources; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a pilot program to determine whether Atlantic sturgeon can be restored in the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries such as the Nanticoke.

What's relayed through Stevenson's headphones is the electronic beeps of sonic transmitters, little vials less than an inch long that have been attached to half a dozen of the sturgeon. Each transmitter has its own code: three series of five beeps is No. 555, for example. Eventually, 15 or so fish will wear the transmitters.

Secor and other scientists hope that the transmitters will tell them how the Nanticoke's new population is faring: where they go, what they eat. All of the fish released yesterday carry a small yellow tag to identify them as hatchery-raised.

Sturgeon once were abundant in the Chesapeake and its rivers, and were a major industry in Maryland. Both sturgeon meat and roe (caviar) were popular. But steady degradation of the habitat, including spawning areas, caused the fish to virtually disappear from the bay early this century.

"We really have no idea what they'll do," Stevenson said of the fish put in the river. Behind her, a DNR truck with two 800-gallon tanks was pouring out sturgeon through a large hose.

All of the fish are a year old, said project designer Secor, but they range in size from an inch to 14 inches long. The fish were put in the river at two Dorchester County locations -- first in Vienna and then in Sharptown, a few miles upriver.

"Wow, look at the fish coming out of there," Secor said as the fish shot into the river. "A waterfall of sturgeon -- isn't that great?"

Secor and his research assistants will monitor the fish two or three days a week by listening to the beeps for the next two months.

"It's two issues," he said of the project. "Why aren't there sturgeon here? Would it be feasible to reintroduce sturgeon to the bay?"

The project was conceived by Secor about three years ago. He held a workshop for DNR employees, and the state signed on. The project, funded through a $40,000

National Biological Service grant with technical support from DNR and the University of Maryland Center for Estuarine and Environmental Studies, will last a year.

"Release them, see what they do -- that was the idea," he said yesterday. It isn't a quick study, either -- sturgeon live 40 to 60 years and don't reproduce until they are 10 to 20. They grow slowly, with males reaching 5 feet in length and 90 pounds. Females are bigger -- 6 feet and 160 pounds -- and reach maturity in 20 to 30 years.

"It's going to be a long haul," Secor said. "This is restoration ecology. Can we bring back something that once was?"

There are plenty of questions. For example, studies of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea found that they did better in salt water. In New York's Hudson River, fresh water seemed better. Scientists will look at other things: diet, migration, water temperature, oxygen -- as well as water quality to see what sturgeon prefer in Maryland.

Secor hopes this project works and he can try it in rivers in Virginia and ultimately, the Potomac.

"They're like big dodo birds," he said. But if his project works, he hopes they may not be extinct in the Chesapeake forever.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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