“The boys [at NOAA] with their computers and their policy aren’t as immersed in the real world as they need to be,” he said.
The bad news doesn’t end there for Reiger and his colleagues. Unable to fulfill their mission to repopulate the Potomac, the Hudson sturgeon at the hatchery are probably doomed, swimming on a sort of death row.
GenOn, a utility that supports the program with about $250,000 per year, might pull its funding, leaving no way to provide for the fish, said Brian Richardson, the Maryland hatcheries division manager.
Returning them to the Hudson River isn’t an option, said Marta Nammack, national Endangered Species Act listing coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Service.
“They’ve been domesticated,” she said. “They wouldn’t know how to survive. It would be like euthanasia. Nobody wants to kill a bunch of fish.”
NOAA has similar concerns about releasing the fish in the Potomac. Hatchery fish have a lower survival rate in the wild, and Hudson sturgeon aren’t adapted to the Chesapeake.
The commission, along with Maryland and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had high hopes for restocking from the hatchery. In 1996, long before the listings, 3,000 sturgeon from other places were released into Maryland’s Nanticoke River.
Watermen were encouraged to recapture those fish to determine if they stuck around and spawned. Plenty of the released sturgeon were caught, but data failed to show what biologists hoped for — a sign that they had babies that would one day return to spawn their own.
The sad truth is that Atlantic sturgeon are complicated and take a long time to reproduce, making it hard for them to recover from wipeout.
It started with the Atlantic sturgeon’s relative, the smaller short nose sturgeon, protected from fishing in 1967 when the population fell too low. Thirty years later, Maryland closed its Atlantic sturgeon fishery.
NOAA designated them as a species of concern in 2004, leading to last year’s endangered listing.
Endangered listings are a last-ditch attempt to preserve a wild species. Blood lines aren’t the only concern. NOAA is establishing a team of academics and scientists to examine ways to improve water quality, reduce boat strikes, lower bycatches in fishing nets and remove obstacles to their migration.
“We need to make sure the threats to the habitat are no longer there,” Nammack said.
The future for sturgeon in the Potomac is as murky as its waters. Nearly 50 years after the short nose sturgeon was protected, it still hasn’t come back.
“Unfortunately, this species takes a long time to reproduce,” Nammack said. “It does take patience, and it’s tough because it’s not anything that anybody wants to hear.”