Species Spotlight: Atlantic Sturgeon

Published March 18, 2016
The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) is an ancient species, dating back at least 70 million years. They can grow to be 14 feet long and weigh as much as 800 pounds and the oldest known was 60 years old. Atlantic sturgeon may be found in the Atlantic Ocean and in rivers from Maine to Florida, and were federally-protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2012.

Sturgeon do not have scales like other fish but are instead protected by a series of bony plates, known as scutes. They also have a series of whiskers that help sense water conditions and prey. Atlantic sturgeon are considered bottom dwellers and, despite their large size, feed on small creatures, such as worms and shrimp. Also, while the reason is unknown, Atlantic sturgeon are known to breach, or jump out of the water, similar to humpback whales.

In South Carolina, Atlantic sturgeon have been captured in the Great Pee Dee, Waccamaw, San-tee, Cooper, Edisto, Combahee, and Savannah Rivers. They are an anadromous species, meaning they are spawned and spend their early life stages in freshwater and then move to saltwater as adults. Once mature, which varies from six to 18 years, adults migrate back to freshwater to spawn themselves. Female Atlantic sturgeon may carry between 400,000 and eight million eggs, depending on size. Atlantic sturgeon are capable of long migrations up and down the entire Atlantic coast while they look for the idea spawning habitats of gently flowing water over gravel-bottom sections of the river. That way, their eggs can attach to rocks and have places to hide ones they hatch.

Atlantic sturgeon once supported impressive commercial and recreational fisheries coast-wide, and records of sturgeon landings reached an estimated 7-8 million pounds at the turn of the 20th century. They are highly prized for their eggs, which make caviar, but because it takes so long to reach maturity, overfishing of the large females caused of a severe decline population.

Determining population estimates is challenging, since they have been eliminated from many rivers and sampling in the ocean is difficult and dangerous. The SC Department of Natural Resources has been conducting sturgeon studies for decades by affixing special tags to juvenile and adult sturgeon captured in SC rivers and estuaries, which emit an intermittent ‘ping’ that includes the tag number. As the sturgeon swim passed specialized receivers throughout rivers along the east coast, the pings are recorded and biologists use that information to determine migration patterns and spawning locations. The Charleston District has contributed more than $300,000 to this effort to ensure the best results possible. Atlantic sturgeon tagged in South Carolina have been Tracked as far away as New York and Connecticut.

The Charleston District works hard to help improve the health of South Carolina’s superb natural resources and habitats through proactive steps to help our SCDNR partners identify the population sizes of sturgeon in both the Cooper and Santee Rivers to contribute to our knowledge of species such as the Atlantic sturgeon. To address sturgeon migration, both Santee Cooper and the District are in formal consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service to help sturgeon access historic spawning grounds beyond the District’s St. Stephen Powerhouse and recover their populations.