NOAA 99-R119
Contact: Scott Smullen


On May 27, the National Marine Fisheries Service will extend bans on fishing for Atlantic sturgeon in federal waters from Maine to Florida to protect these severely depleted stocks until they recover. The action is in addition to an Atlantic states coast-wide sturgeon fishing ban in state waters that was started in 1998.

"This measure will ensure the entire stretch of the Atlantic sturgeon habitat is protected by complementary regulations that work toward rebuilding these stocks. Because the sturgeon population is so stressed, and since it can take more than 15 years for females to reach breeding age, it may take up to 40 years before these fish return to fishable numbers," said Penny Dalton, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Fisheries biologists have incomplete population estimates for most East Coast tributaries because so few Atlantic sturgeon remain However, studies show that the largest remnant sturgeon population is found in the Hudson River where numbers of juvenile sturgeon have dropped from about 20,000 in the 1970s, to less than 5,000 in the 1990s. Atlantic sturgeon are an anadromous fish that can be found in ocean waters. However, as juveniles they live in rivers, and as adults ascend rivers to spawn.

Fisheries service officials expect the closure to have little effect on fishermen because few sturgeon are caught in federal waters, and the state-wide fishing ban prevents landing the species in all Atlantic coast states. Currently, no commercial fishing targets the species and recreational anglers do not seek and rarely catch Atlantic sturgeon incidentally.

The fisheries service considered a petition to list Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species in 1998. However, because Atlantic sturgeon can still be found in many East Coast rivers, and some sturgeon numbers are rising under state closures, the agency decided a fishing ban in federal waters is the best approach to rebuilding the stocks.

Anglers who incidently catch Atlantic sturgeon should immediately release them back to the water, and scientific researchers conducting studies on Atlantic sturgeon in federal waters will need a research permit from the fisheries service.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for managing Atlantic sturgeon in state waters under the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act. ASMFC is a consortium of 15 East Coast states in cooperation with the District of Columbia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which share management of marine species that range the coast.

The Atlantic sturgeon stocks in the United States have been depleted since the turn of the century. Atlantic sturgeon are classified under an ancient family of bony fish, but were prized by fisherman for their flesh, and for their eggs which were sold as caviar. Sturgeon caviar found on grocery store shelves today is imported from overseas or from West Coast aquaculture operations. Atlantic sturgeon can grow to six to eight feet in length and weigh up to 600 pounds.

During the early 1990's, as many as 200,000 pounds of Atlantic sturgeon were still being landed by commercial fishermen each year. However, a drop in commercial landings and studies showing population declines in some East Coast rivers caused the ASMFC to call for the state closures and request complementary action from the fisheries service.

Workload constraints have prevented the federal fishery management councils in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South Atlantic from developing formal fishery management plans for Atlantic sturgeon. In the absence of federal fishery management plans, the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act allows the Secretary of Commerce, through the National Marine Fisheries Service, to implement regulations in federal waters that complement ASMFC management in state waters.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce Department agency.