Helping to generate sturgeon's comeback

OUTDOORS

November 16, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

AQUASCO - Mirant Corp. makes electricity at its Chalk Point Generating Station.

And in a small building dwarfed by the cooling towers and smokestacks, Mirant makes fish.

For more than 15 years, striped bass, perch and shad have made the successful swim from the round hatchery tanks to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The latest Mirant offspring are still years from being ready for prime time, though at 4 feet long and 40 pounds, they hardly seem like babies. But if these fish and others in future generations can make it through their teens to their grown-up years, the Chesapeake could be welcoming back another member of the family.

Last week, as utility officials watched, biologists from the Department of Natural Resources wrestled 150 Atlantic sturgeon from the tanks onto a truck and then carefully deposited them into one of three outdoor ponds.

Before their short ride, each fish was scanned for an electronic identification chip embedded in its body, measured and weighed.

With their reptilian shape and bony body plates, they look like something out of Jurassic Park.

Right neighborhood, says Andy Lazur of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences.

Sturgeon are among the oldest living species of fish. They have been around more than 120 million years, longer than T-Rex, the woolly mammoth or William Donald Schaefer.

"The sturgeon, in my mind, is one of the most unique species," says Lazur, who works at the Horn Point Environmental Laboratory in Cambridge. "It's a great indicator species. If you have a healthy sturgeon population, you have a healthy bay."

Unfortunately, Maryland has neither.

During the 1800s, sturgeon were highly desired for the caviar made from their eggs and tasty meat, which fishermen prepared in smokers. In the latter part of that century, the Chesapeake had the second-largest sturgeon caviar fishery on the East Coast.

Overfishing, coupled with filthy water and dams blocking the way to traditional spawning grounds, emptied the Chesapeake of its sturgeon. By the time federal officials could stop the harvest, the damage was done.

The National Marine Fisheries Service placed the Atlantic sturgeon on its list of candidates for the endangered species list in 1988 and renewed its status 10 years later, but stopped short of giving it blanket protection. (The shortnose sturgeon was listed as an endangered species in 1967.)

The agency banned commercial fishing for sturgeon in federal waters from Maine to Florida, and the states imposed closures as well. Maryland put the Atlantic sturgeon on its endangered species list.

Unlike the striped bass, which came back after a five-year fishing moratorium, the sturgeon is a more complex puzzle.

"We're learning more every year, but there's a lot of things we don't know about the sturgeon population dynamics," says Steve Minkkinen, project leader for the fishery resource office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

What they do know is that this will not be an overnight success.

Because sturgeon take their time getting from adolescence to parenthood - from 10 to 30 years - restoring the stock is a slow process. Also the species is anadromous, migrating from the ocean to fresh water to spawn.

"When you're starting with none in Maryland, the thought that you could restore sturgeon through fishing closure just isn't realistic," says Minkkinen, who until recently was a DNR biologist. "You can't build from zero."

In July 1996, DNR stocked the Nanticoke River with 3,300 tagged yearlings. The river had once been a spawning ground, but no fish had been seen in years.

Rewards were offered to commercial fishermen who turned in live tagged fish. Over the next two years, more than 500 sturgeon were turned in, and the vast majority had hatchery tags. The fish were caught all over the bay, with the highest concentration below the Bay Bridge near Cove Point.

The good news was that the fish more than doubled in size, proving their ability to survive here. The bad news was that because the catches were so scattered, scientists held out little hope that the sturgeon had imprinted and would return to spawn in the Nanticoke.

The same year the Nanticoke experiment started, Mirant began raising sturgeon from stock taken from the Hudson River. Back then, the plant was owned by Pepco, which sold its largest power plants three years ago to Atlanta-based Mirant Corp.

"We're trying to develop a brood stock," says Minkkinen. "We hope to come up with a restoration plan this winter to formally state what we're trying to do so that we can secure funding."

Lazur and Minkkinen hope to expand the partnership with DNR and Mirant to include Delaware fish and game officials. The Delaware River and Delaware Bay had what is believed to have been the greatest sturgeon fishery on the East Coast until the same factors caused it to crash.

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