The Atlantic sturgeon, prized for its caviar-making roe and drastically overfished in the Hudson River, is making a comeback.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the river’s sturgeon population — protected for the past 20 years — has reached a 10-year high, according to a joint federal and state survey released Wednesday.
“We are cautiously optimistic that, with our continued vigilance and efforts to protect this species, Atlantic sturgeon will have a secure future,” DEC acting Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement.
The large, whiskered fish, which can weigh 500 pounds or more, were once plentiful in the Hudson, said Rutgers University marine scientist Thomas Grothues.
In 1898, fishermen netted more than 500,000 pounds of sturgeon. The Hudson fishery declined through the last century, to annual catches of 33,000 pounds or less, due in part to a misunderstanding of the sturgeon life cycle, Grothues said.
Sturgeon can live up to 60 years, he said, though the females don’t spawn until they are 16 or older and weigh about 90 pounds.
The fish’s slow sexual maturation wasn’t discovered until the mid-90s, by which point New York’s fishing regulations had already set a 5-foot minimum catch limit on sturgeon, allowing juvenile fish as small as 50 pounds to be caught.
In 1996, as the population continued to dwindle, New York State imposed a total ban on sturgeon fishing. Two years later, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission imposed a 40-year ban for all coastal waters.
In 2012, due to the slow pace of recovery, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated Hudson River sturgeon as endangered.
The rebound in the past decade has been significant, with the DEC reporting that it recorded an average of nine juvenile sturgeon per 10 nets in 2006 surveys and 68 per 10 nets in 2015.
“The thing about sturgeon is that they carry so many eggs that they have this immense capacity to reproduce,” Grothues said. “If a lot of them make it to reproduction age, the stock could rebuild itself pretty quickly.”
An assessment of sturgeon stock along the coast is scheduled to be completed in 2017 by the Atlantic fisheries commission.