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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 migrate up rivers to spawn. The species is found from Labrador, 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.



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. They spend the summer in 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 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 fish in North Carolina, but other fish within the Carolina and 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 one to five years for males and three to five years for females.


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 coastwide landings exceeded 7 million pounds 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 within state waters. The National Marine Fisheries Service implemented a moratorium in the Exclusive Economic Zone (federal waters from 3 to 200 miles from shore) in 1998.


The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for managing this species and considers the stocks to be depleted along the Atlantic coast. 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 its first fishery management plan for Atlantic sturgeon. The goal was to restore sturgeon to fishable abundance throughout its range. Landings have been low since the early 1900’s. In 1991, the North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission made it illegal to possess sturgeon in North Carolina. As of April 1998, all Atlantic Coast states had implemented total harvest 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 harvest ban on sturgeon 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 nonindigenous Atlantic sturgeon and to permit development of private aquaculture facilities for this species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the Carolina Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species on April 6, 2012. In 2016, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 to designate critical habitat was published in September 2017. This rule designated approximately 1,939 km (1,205 miles) of aquatic habitat for the Carolina Distinct Population Segment, including the following rivers in North Carolina: Roanoke, Tar/Pamlico, Neuse, Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear, and Pee Dee.

Stock Status Overview

  • Assessment: Yes
  • Terminal Year of Last Assessment: 2015
    • Overfishing: No (Harvest Moratorium)
    • Overfished: Yes (Depleted)

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission completed a benchmark assessment on Atlantic sturgeon in July 2017. This assessment employed a number of statistical analyses including the Mann Kendall test, Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average model, and power, cluster, dynamic factor, and population viability analyses. Several of these analyses indicated no significant trends in various time series with the exception that both the Mann Kendall and population viability analysis detected a significant increasing trend of abundance in North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound Independent Gill Net Survey. Results also indicated that analyses based on indices indicated a coast wide structure rather than a Distinct Population Segment structured stock. The Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average analysis indicated the time series had no significant trend or an increasing trend when using all available years of data for all indices and the terminal year index values were all credibly above the 25th percentile for their unique time series. Coast wide abundance values are not available; however, stock reduction analysis indicated that the population declined to a low but stable level in the early 1900s then began to increase from the late 1990s onwards. In addition, estimates of coast wide total mortality, known as Z, were below the total mortality threshold identified in the stock assessment threshold, suggesting current levels of total mortality are sustainable. However, estimates of total mortality for the New York Bight, Chesapeake, and South Atlantic distinct population segments had less than 50 percent chance that total mortality was above the threshold, while the Maine and Carolina segments had greater than 70 percent chance that total mortality was above the threshold, indicating that mortality is too high within these distinct population segments (Table 1).


Mortality Status

Biomass/Abundance Status

Probability that
Z > Z50%EPR 80%

Relative to Historic Levels

Average Probability of Terminal Year of Indices > 1998* Value





Gulf of Maine




New York Bight




Chesapeake Bay








South Atlantic



(no suitable indices)

* For indices that started after 1998, the first year of the index was used as the reference value.

The 2017 benchmark stock assessment concluded that the resource was depleted coastwide. The “depleted” determination was used instead of “overfished” because of the many factors that contribute to the low abundance of Atlantic sturgeon, including directed and incidental fishing, habitat loss, ship strikes, and climate changes. While overall levels of Atlantic sturgeon remain low, the population appears to be recovering slowly since the implementation of a coastwide moratorium in 1998, and the current mortality level is indicated as sustainable. While Atlantic sturgeon is still considered a “data poor” species, a tremendous amount of information has been collected on the species since 1998 that improves the abilities of managers and scientists to manage the species. States have invested considerable resources to increase understanding of sturgeon biology and life history. Additionally, bycatch, survey, tagging and genetic data were collected from dozens of state and federal agencies and academic programs along the coast to inform the latest benchmark stock assessment.

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 (age 0), juvenile, and occasionally 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.


Management Agencies

North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission


For more information, contact Michael S. Loeffler at 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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