The Atlantic Sturgeon: The Symbol of The Hudson River Estuary
The Iconic Atlantic Sturgeon
The blue and white image of an Atlantic sturgeon is a familiar sight along Hudson Valley highways. Through a partnership that includes the DEC, the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York State Thruway Authority, and the New York State Bridge Authority, the sturgeon appears on signs where major roads cross the Hudson and tributaries of the estuary. It reminds travelers that these smaller streams are intimately connected to the mainstem of the Hudson, and that the health of the river depends on the health of its watershed. It highlights the estuary's critical role as habitat for valuable fish and wildlife and the need to be vigilant in protecting this natural heritage.
The Hudson's Largest Fish
Atlantic sturgeon may live more than 60 years, reaching a weight of 800 pounds and a length of fourteen feet. They are armored with bony plates, evidence of a lineage extending back to the age of dinosaurs.
Sturgeon are bottom feeders, using whisker-like barbels on the underside of their snouts to find food - chiefly worms, insects, crustaceans, and small fish - that is sucked up in their tube-like mouths. While they prefer deep water, sturgeon occasionally bask at the surface and leap into the air.
Atlantic sturgeon spend most of their lives in ocean waters near estuaries. Adults spawn in fresh water from May through July, mainly from Hyde Park to Catskill. Young fish may stay in the Hudson up to eight years before going to sea, where they wander in and out of rivers north to Canada and south to Georgia. Males return to spawn as early as age 12. Females return closer to age 20.
Bringing Sturgeon Back
Sturgeon eggs (a prime source of caviar) and meat (tasty when smoked) make these fish commercially valuable. Because adult females were being taken for their eggs, young Atlantic sturgeon became very scarce in the Hudson in the 1990s. New York closed its fishery in 1996; in 1998 the Atlantic coast states jointly enacted a 40-year moratorium on sturgeon fishing. In 2012 the Atlantic sturgeon was listed as an endangered species.
In 2008, more adult males began to appear in the Hudson, likely born in 1996. Females born then are returning to spawn now, and numbers of juvenile Atlantic sturgeon are increasing. The moratorium will offer protection until these youngsters mature and launch a third generation 20 years from now.
The shortnose sturgeon is also found in the Hudson. This smaller fish (up to four feet long), seldom travels beyond the estuary. The shortnose is protected as an endangered species, and must be released without harm whenever taken. However, it is doing well in the Hudson as compared to the rest of its range.
For More Information
The Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda calls for monitoring stocks of Atlantic sturgeon and other migratory fish in the river. DEC's Hudson River Fisheries Unit takes the lead on this work, conducting annual studies of juvenile and adult sturgeon populations in the estuary. To learn more, visit the Unit's migratory fish research web page and the sturgeon page in the DEC's collection of web pages about New York State's freshwater fishes.