The shortnose sturgeon, which have prowled the depths of the Chesapeake Bay since dinosaurs roamed the earth, have been on the verge of extinction for 30 years.
In fact, up until this year, scientists believed there were none left in the bay. But fishermen found three shortnose sturgeons in their nets in April to renew the hope of scientists and environmentalists alike.
And now, government scientists are preparing to launch the bulk of a study that he hopes will show there is a population of shortnose sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay.
Beginning as early as this week, Jorgen Skjeveland and his team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will try to catch, tag, measure and take genetic samples of the fish in order to determine whether shortnose sturgeon are still permanent residents of the bay or just visitors from the nearby Delaware River.
“The ultimate goal is to … learn as much as we can in order to protect and restore these as much as possible,” Sjkeveland said.
Studies of the shortnose sturgeon began in the spring, but the bay water soon warmed, reducing the likelihood of finding the fish. Skjeveland has been waiting until the water cools before he can continue.
The shortnose is a long and narrow bottom-feeding fish that can live for 50-60 years and grow to be five-feet long. Instead of scales, the fish’s body is covered with armor-like bony plates.
It is one of two types of sturgeon known to the Chesapeake Bay. The other, the Atlantic sturgeon, was aggressively fished, predominantly for its caviar, since colonial times. The shortnose was an incidental victim, as it got caught in the nets targeting Atlantic sturgeon. protection?????
Today, Atlantic sturgeon are much more plentiful in the bay than the shortnose, although environmentalist efforts have pushed the Atlantic sturgeon towards the endangered species list as well.
Scientists agree that sturgeons are among the bay’s oldest creatures.
“Sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay are like the giant Redwoods” of the Pacific Northwest, said Bill Goldsborough, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist.
If more shortnose sturgeon are found in the Chesapeake, genetic samples will be compared to those from the Delaware River, where there is a significant population of shortnose sturgeon.
This will prove if the Chesapeake has its own population of the fish or if those found in April wandered down the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a man-made channel that connects the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River.
“Our questions right now is are these (fish) distinct from Delaware or are they transient,” said Richard St. Pierre, a Fish and Wildlife Service scientist. “(Skjeveland) thinks they are a remnant Chesapeake population.”
The research will concentrate on the approximately 40,000 acres of water area controlled by the Defense Department at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Skjeveland said the Pentagon will provide $25,000 to fund most of the research because of a requirement that the department document the numbers and location of endangered species that occupy the area under its control.
“We need to have some planning tools available to us when we conduct our operations so we can avoid valuable areas,” said Steve Wampler, U.S. Army environmental protection specialist.
Wampler said dredging activities, swim testing and firing programs will be planned around important areas if and when they are identified.
But before avoiding the fish even becomes an issue, Skjeveland is setting out to see if indeed the ancient species has not been lost to the Chesapeake Bay forever.