by Char Weigel –
The Hudson River Valley is renowned for its history. One could say it is swimming in it – Washington slept here, British spy Major John André was captured here. The rivertowns are alive with ancient history as well. The sturgeons of the Hudson River are the seventh oldest species on earth, unchanged for 200 million years. They are symbols of the Hudson estuary, their bony image displayed on signs dotting local highways. Once so populous that 18th century residents stayed off the river when it was full of huge, spawning sturgeons, these living fossils are now protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“Endangered” means that a species is at risk of extinction. Sturgeons have been under siege from overfishing, damming, pollution and contamination, propellers and turbines, bycatch (accidental capture when fishing for another species) and other stressors. An estimated 10,000 adult female sturgeons swam in the Hudson in the 1800s. Data from 1985 to 1995 estimated only 267 remained. Without strong protection, these ancient fish could disappear on this generation’s watch.
A slow, early August troll up the Hudson with Riverkeeper’s Captain John Lipscomb revealed a river alive with eagles, cormorants and crabs. Fish jumped in the distance, but no sign of sturgeons. Because they are protected by the Act, it is illegal to fish for or possess Hudson River sturgeons. In 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found hints of slow recovery despite ongoing depletion. On August 12, however, the Federal Government published changes to the Endangered Species Act that environmental groups claim will increase risk of extinction for many animals, especially those dependent on wide habitat range such as the sturgeon. The changes allow economic gain to be factored into decisions on species survival and make it more difficult to address the risks of climate change.
The Hudson is home to two species of endangered sturgeons – the shortnose and the Atlantic. Sturgeons are special, not just because of their ancient lineage, but because they are anadromous, migrating from salt water to spawn in freshwater. The Hudson is an estuary, a tidal river that mixes fresh and salt water in a special and rare situation necessary for sturgeons to exist. Female Atlantic sturgeons come to the river to spawn, but spend most of their long lives in the ocean. Male and juvenile Atlantic sturgeons spend much of their lives in the river along with the shortnose sturgeons.
Sturgeons swim in the Hudson channel and wander into shallow bays along the shoreline, but few residents are aware of them. “They would be easier to protect if we could just see them,” said Lipscomb. “In the environmental business, a ‘win’ means getting back to zero. It takes so much effort to avoid an accident that it’s hard to make forward progress.” What would forward progress look like? “Dam removal for one. When you take down a dam, you can watch the fish come back to spawn. A sight that feeds the soul.”
Sturgeons are the largest creatures in the river. The shortnose can grow to four feet or more, the average height of a 10-year-old boy. The Atlantic sturgeons are giants. Last year, researchers near Hyde Park spotted a 14-foot sturgeon on sonar, almost as long as the average SUV. This fish weighed about 800 pounds and was likely born over 60 years ago. If female, she did not achieve sexual maturity until 1977, the year Jimmy Carter became president.
Therein lies the sturgeon’s greatest vulnerability. Since it takes about 18 years for females to be able to reproduce, anything that depletes the population can quickly kill off the species. “The Hudson population cannot sustain the loss of hundreds or even tens of females,” said Lipscomb. As the meme goes, “The future is female,” especially for sturgeons.
For that reason, Riverkeeper and other non-profits have kept the focus on regulatory agencies obligated to protect the sturgeons during the construction of the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and beyond. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have been charged with that task. It is unclear how many sturgeons have been killed by bridge construction, but local environmentalists fear too many have been caught up in propellers of crew boats traveling to and from the site.
NOAA wants to engage the public in sturgeon conservation, creating the SCUTES program to support that effort. Scutes are armor-like bony scales arrayed in five rows along a sturgeon’s body. Jolvan Morris, coordinator for NOAA’s Students Collaborating to Undertake Tracking Efforts for Sturgeon (SCUTES), works to increase public engagement with sturgeons. “We’re competing with whales and sea turtles to make sturgeons cute and fluffy,” said Morris. Their public education, classroom curriculum and Adopt-A-Sturgeon programs are designed to encourage stewardship. Morris and other NOAA and DEC conservationists keep sturgeons in the news, in the classrooms and in the river.
Today’s generation will decide whether the Hudson River sturgeons survive or become extinct. The changes to the Endangered Species Act are in direct opposition to the urgent warning of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that the current rate of species extinction is unprecedented in human history. Several environmental organizations are suing the Federal Government over these changes, citing increased risk of extinction for all endangered species.
Few in the rivertowns have ever seen a sturgeon, so why should it matter if they become extinct? “The Hudson is a wilderness running by our doorsteps,” said Lipscomb. “My dream is that the river will become a protected sanctuary so fish can go about spawning as they have for millions of years.” He continued, “When the sturgeons jump, it is like a failed submarine launch. They leap two feet up and then fall over on their side in a belly flop.” Lipscomb paused to navigate the shallows just north of Peekskill and then continued, “People ask me why they jump. All I can say is that they jump for joy.”