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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - Atlantic Sturgeon

Marine Fisheries

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ATLANTIC STURGEON, Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus

8-point rule

Atlantic sturgeon

Life History

Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus)are an anadromous species, which means they reside primarily in oceans as adults but migrating up rivers to spawn. The species is found from the St. John River, Canada, south to the St. Johns River, Florida. Atlantic sturgeon spend their first few years of life in their natal estuary before becoming highly migratory and travelling throughout the coastal Atlantic waters and various estuaries to feed.

 

Sturgeon

Once mature Atlantic sturgeon exhibit natal homing, returning to the specific river where they were spawned to reproduce. Migratory patterns are seasonal, with northern migrations in spring as water temperatures rise and southern movements in fall as water temperatures decrease. Some adult sturgeon will return to spawning grounds in consecutive years but others may only spawn once every two or three years. Adult fish that reproduce in the Roanoke River enter the Albemarle Sound basin during the spring of the year. They spend the summer in the western Albemarle Sound and lower Roanoke River. Once temperatures begin to fall around September the fish ascend the Roanoke River to the rapids near Weldon to spawn. When spawning is complete and as water temperatures fall they leave the river and proceed to the ocean through the Albemarle Sound.

Atlantic sturgeon are thought to have historically spawned within the Roanoke, Tar/Pamlico, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers. Currently the Roanoke River is the only North Carolina river with a known spawning population. Evidence from the collection of young-of-year fish exists for the other North Carolina rivers but collections of eggs has not been documented. Additionally, telemetry tagged sturgeon (tracked with radio signals) have been documented within the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers potentially making a spawning run.

Atlantic sturgeon at various life stages are found within most estuarine waters of North Carolina throughout the entire year. Due to their highly migratory behavior, Atlantic sturgeon spawned in other regions often enter North Carolina waters. Sturgeon from the Hudson, Chesapeake, Carolina, and South Atlantic Distinct Population Segments have been identified in North Carolina waters.

Atlantic sturgeon are opportunistic bottom feeders that prey on various types of worms, shrimps, crabs, snails and small fishes.

Atlantic sturgeon may live to a maximum age of 70 years; however, in more southern locations the maximum age is from 30 to 40 years. Age at which Atlantic sturgeon reach sexual maturity is unknown for specimens in North Carolina, but other fish within the Carolina sand South Atlantic Distinct Population Segment mature as early as 5 to 13 years for males and 7 to 19 years for females. In contrast, sturgeon in more northern latitudes (Hudson River) mature at 11 to 20 years for males and 20 to 30 years for females. Research conducted in South Carolina show spawning intervals of oneto five years for males and three to five years for females.

Fisheries

Since colonial times, Atlantic sturgeon have supported commercial fisheries of varying magnitude. In the late 1800s, they were second only to lobster among important fisheries, and landings exceeding 7 million pounds coastwide annually. Overharvesting sturgeon for meat and caviar continued until 1991 in North Carolina when commercial and recreational harvest was prohibited. In 1998 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission implemented a coastwide moratorium ending all harvest coastwide.

Management

The coastwide Atlantic sturgeon population is made up of five distinct population segments: (1) Gulf of Maine, (2) New York Bight, (3) Chesapeake, (4) Carolina, and (5) South Atlantic. In North Carolina (Carolina Distinct Population Segment), sturgeon are currently included in the North Carolina Interjurisdictional Fishery Management Plan, which defers to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission plan for compliance requirements. In 1990, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a fishery management plan for Atlantic sturgeon. The goal was to restore sturgeon to fishable abundance throughout its range. As of April 1998, all Atlantic Coast states had implemented total closures in state waters. An amendment to the plan was passed in June 1998. Objectives of the amendment were to establish at least 20 protected year classes of females in each spawning stock. In May 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service extended the ban on sturgeon fishing into federal waters. Addendum I to Amendment 1 of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission fishery management plan (passed in 2001) allowed for the importation of non-indigenous Atlantic sturgeon and to permit development of private aquaculture facilities for this species. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has begun the initial steps of conducting a stock assessment for Atlantic sturgeon with an initial projected completion date of 2015. However, due to data constraints, the assessment has been delayed and will not be completed until the fall of 2017.

Stock Status Overview

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for managing this species and considers the stocks to be unknown along the Atlantic coast. Landings have been low since 1960. In 1991, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission made it illegal to possess sturgeon in North Carolina. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Carolina Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species under the 1973 Endangered Species Act on April 6, 2012. In 2016, NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule to designate Atlantic sturgeon critical habitat (specific areas that are considered essential to the conservation of the species) in each of the distinct population segments. The final rule is expected to be published in 2017.

Atlantic sturgeon are collected in various independent sampling programs conducted by the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. Only the Albemarle Sound Independent Gill Net Survey data are used in the current stock assessment. Young-of-year, juvenile, and an occasional adult Atlantic sturgeon are collected in this survey. The survey shows an increasing trend in abundance for juveniles (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Research Needs

Research needs include monitoring population status through juvenile indices and abundance and age composition of spawning population, characterizing the incidence of bycatch in various fisheries and associated mortalities, and conducting tag/recapture studies for estimates of bycatch loss.

Links

Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Fishery Management Plans, Amendments, Revisions and Supplements

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Stock Assessment Reports

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Contacts

For more information,
contact Michael S. Loeffler at Michael.Loeffler@ncdenr.gov
or 252-264-3911
 
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N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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