Convinced that one of the Potomac’s signature fish might be gone for good, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin has thrown its support behind a Maryland and U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to use 60 domesticated Atlantic sturgeon, mostly from New York’s Hudson River, to restock the Potomac.
But the effort to bring them back has its own troubles. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fishery service listed four varieties of Atlantic sturgeon populations as endangered — the New York Bight, Carolina, South Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay listing has all but dashed hopes of restocking using the Hudson River sturgeon kept at a Maryland hatchery. To preserve the genetic purity of protected animals under the Endangered Species Act, rules prohibit mixing wild and tame species, no matter how much they look alike.
Long story short, Hudson sturgeon aren’t allowed to potentially mess around with their wild cousins in the Potomac. The result is that the Potomac will almost certainly lose its oldest, largest and most distinctive fish.
Marine biologists say it will take more than a century for sturgeon that migrate up and down the Atlantic Coast to return to spawn in Chesapeake Bay tributaries such as the Potomac.
In a desperate bid to move forward with restocking, the commission — with members from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the District and the federal government — is preparing to submit a petition and recovery plan to NOAA to persuade it to green-light the project.
But even the director of the commission’s living resources division, Jim Cummins, called the effort “pretty iffy.” Still, he said, “We have to try. Otherwise, I’ll never see sturgeon in the Potomac River in my lifetime.”
The loss of sturgeon would diminish any river’s appeal. Sturgeon aren’t the most attractive fish, but their bodies are impressive, growing to 14 feet and weighing as much as 800 pounds.
Like humans, they become reproductive in their teens. They can live to age 60. Like sharks, they roamed the waters when dinosaurs walked the earth. Since the 1800s, they were fished for meat that was pickled, eggs turned into caviar, skin converted to leather and oils used for paints.
Two brothers pulled a 170-pound, 7-foot sturgeon out of the Potomac in April 1970 in Fairfax County, the last known catch. The fish were once so abundant in the Chesapeake that Native Americans grabbed them by hand.
Now the James River is one of a few bay tributaries with enough to merit a count. But the estimated population of 300 is so small, compared to a historic population of 20,000, that removing any for restocking is frowned on by NOAA.