A New Beginning

Atlantic sturgeon were once so plentiful in the Hudson that their meat was dubbed, "Albany beef," but overfishing caused their numbers to dwindle. Now, if all goes according to plan, these largest denizens of the river will be making a comeback.



A New Beginning

 

If efforts to restock them succeed, Atlantic sturgeon ¡ª older than the dinosaurs andonce plentiful in the Hudson ¡ª will be making a comeback

 

Story and photographs by Nihal Mahawaduge

 

Anyone who¡¯s crossed the Hudson River, or one of its tributaries, has seen signs depicting a fish whose backbone curves upward into a shark-like tail. It¡¯s a portrait of an Atlantic sturgeon, and it symbolizes the state¡¯s commitment to renewing the ecosystem of the Hudson River estuary.

 

On an overcast afternoon last September, part of that commitment ¡ª increasing the river¡¯s sturgeon population ¡ª moved closer to fruition. A small crowd was on hand at Haverstraw Bay County Park in Rockland County as a truck pulled up to the water¡¯s edge; inside were three large tanks filled with 89 Atlantic sturgeon born in a Pennsylvania hatchery. Aged between six and 10 years, and each measuring about four feet long, the fish were released one by one into the Hudson. If all goes according to plan, these youngsters will eventually make their way to the ocean and then, in 10 or 15 years, return to create their own offspring.

 

Older than the dinosaurs ¡ª and one of the few Jurassic-era fish still in existence ¡ª the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) is the largest creature in the Hudson, normally ranging from six to eight feet in length and weighing bet­ween 200 and 350 pounds. Some specimens have been known to grow up to 14 feet, weigh more than 800 pounds, and live as long as 60 years. They are distinguished by their long snout and four whisker-like appendages (used to sense objects) near their mouth.

 

Atlantic sturgeon live most of their adult lives in the ocean, only coming into the Hudson to spawn in late April. First, they spend a couple of weeks in the river¡¯s brackish waters, getting acclimatized. Then, once the water temperature rises above 47 degrees, they swim up to the freshwater spawning grounds. (Adult males make the trip every year or two, females every three to five years.) The larval fish, hatched by July, migrate to the brackish reaches and feed off living creatures on the river bottom for several years before heading out to sea. Adult females return to the Atlantic four to six weeks after spawning is completed; males often hang around until the fall.

 

Atlantic sturgeon have long been one of the prime catches for Hudson River fishermen, especially after European immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought with them a taste for smoked fish. Although primarily caught for their eggs (or caviar), smoked sturgeon became such a sought-after delicacy ¡ª and was so plentiful ¡ª that it became known as ¡°Albany beef.¡± (The fish were also acclaimed for their jumping ability; early Dutch accounts describe instances of sturgeon leaping onto the decks of ships.)

 

Into the early 1990s, fishermen continued to make a handsome profit from sturgeon. They could obtain as much as 50 pounds of caviar from a 200-pound female, earning up to $60 a pound. In addition, the flesh might fetch $5 a pound. As a result, it was not uncommon for $5,000 to be made on a single sturgeon haul. It was a winning deal for everybody ¡ª except the fish. A slowly developing species (female Atlantic sturgeon reach sexual maturity around the age of 20), the state declared them a protected species in 1996, after their numbers had begun to dwindle alarmingly.

 

In an effort to revive the river¡¯s Atlantic sturgeon population, the state¡¯s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) teamed up with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service¡¯s Northeastern Fisheries Center in Lamar, Pennsylvania. Two local fishermen ¡ª Doug Bush and Everett Nack (both now deceased) ¡ª were hired to catch mature female sturgeon. The fish were artificially spawned, and their eggs were hatched at the Lamar facility. During the past 10 years, the offspring of these Hudson River sturgeon have been raised in a tributary of the Susquehanna River, with Fish & Wildlife Service biologists monitoring their growth and development.

 

On that cloudy day last September, the 89 sturgeon ¡ª gray on the top, white on the bottom, and weighing between 10 and 14 pounds ¡ª were loaded into the tanks and driven to Haverstraw, where Governor Pataki gently placed the first fish in the water. It was the third time this year that Atlantic sturgeon have been reintroduced into the river, bringing the total number released to 207.

 

Thirty-four of these fish have been tagged with sonic monitors, enabling scientists to track their movements for the next two years. DEC marine biologists, led by Gregg Kenney, spend three days every other week tracking the fish ¡ª many of which have been named after characters from Seinfeld ¡ª in a specially equipped boat. The information gathered will help protect sturgeon habitats.

 

Less than two weeks after the September release, I set off from Nyack in the DEC boat with Kenney and Jen Temple. Under the George Washington Bridge, Temple dropped two sonic hydro­phones from the rear of the boat and examined the receiver to see if it detected any signs of sturgeon. It didn¡¯t, so we headed north, repeating the maneuver a dozen times.

 

About a mile south of Hastings, Temple finally picked up a signal. We had located ¡°Newman,¡± a juvenile sturgeon released on May 12 in lower Haverstraw Bay. Soon after, we found three more recently released fish, including ¡°Jackie Childs¡± and ¡°Art Vandelay,¡± between Tarrytown and Irvington. Back in his New Paltz office, Kenney entered the creatures¡¯ precise locations into a database that enables researchers to conduct further studies.

 

The rest of the sturgeon have been tagged with a red button inscribed with a reference number and a toll-free phone number. If the fish are caught, fishermen are instructed to report the sturgeon¡¯s whereabouts. This will help biologists discover where the hatchery-raised fish eventually spawn. The common belief is that they will return to the Susquehanna, where they spent their formative years. But because their parents were raised in the Hudson, all bets, for the moment, are off.

 

Still, the hope is that, 10 or 15 years from now, the sturgeon will return here and start doing their bit to increase the population of the Hudson¡¯s greatest fish. ¡ö

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