The Atlantic sturgeon was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act. Oddly enough, this hasn't been creating much news. The Internet is silent.

Atlantic sturgeon, like salmon and striped bass, live at sea but spawn in freshwater rivers. The species has been steadily declining from northern Florida to Maine since the Industrial Revolution.

NOAA’s website lists three Atlantic sturgeon traits. Here's a crash course in sturgeon ecology. Sturgeon are:

  • Slow-growing
  • Late-maturing
  • Estuary-dependent

Not great traits to have if you’re a species on the verge of obsolescence. Best to be a sparrow, squid or a mahi-mahi.


A Buckler plate from an Atlantic sturgeon

How you perceive the Atlantic sturgeon says something about the kind of person you are, the attitudes you carry. We’re all a little crazy. Our views change with our moods. What’d Freud say in his famous study about the mind?

I can’t remember. But when I read it, I remember thinking the man made sense.

I got to thinking about sturgeon while I ran errands in town. It was Valentine’s Day and the stores and streets were packed with bodies and cars. I’d yet to buy my wife, Jen, flowers. I stood outside the Wakefield Mall and watched trash blow across the parking lot. I came up with this sturgeon list.

1. All species—the world’s biodiversity—need protection. No matter where you live you must care about where you don’t. We share the earth with all. Each species fits a niche — has a reason for being there. Who knows the role sturgeon play in the rivers they use, and no amount of research will ever tell us. Honey bees, the polinators. The fate of flowers. The Atlantic sturgeon’s extinction could cause a landslide of unforeseen problems: a whole ecosystem in shock.

2. I live in Rhode Island. We have our own problems to deal with.

3. What are the sturgeon’s stats? How important is this fish to commerce? Does it drive tourism anywhere? What about sport and commercial fisheries? How much can we realistically do if the fish isn’t in some way a tangible resource to us? I can’t see putting huge amounts of effort into saving them.

4. Atlantic sturgeon are very cool. Ancient, older than the rivers they spawn in, older than the land, they’re almost a mix between reptile and fish. I love their scales and buckler plates—like an armored tank. A twelve-foot sturgeon answers to no one.
The sturgeon has been in my life. I’m fortunate there. I have touched them, released them back into the Atlantic, observed their swimming.
I’ve seen them dead on deck. I even have a sturgeon scale on my mantelpiece. I cut it from a dead fish. I know that’s illegal to do; it says so in the Endangered Species Act. So yes, I want to help this fish. But I won’t. Why? I don’t know. I won’t write any letters or emails. I won’t draw up any proposals. I won’t join small groups and coalitions. I won’t go and participate in any of the river cleanups or dam removals during the first annual sturgeon week.

5. I pay a mortgage. I give remaining money to other things. A sturgeon is not one of them.

6. This is a call to action. A call to apply pressure to any and all major agricultural players from Florida to Maine. All the industries along the rivers—clean up your act! And fisheries? Trawl gear and gill nets? Time to eliminate any incidental take of Atlantic sturgeon. Just figure it out. It’s the law. And if you’re the Navy and you use rivers and estuaries, it’s time to rethink your dredging practices. Time to save the sturgeon—extinction’s forever.

7. The now-endangered Atlantic sturgeon: There’s gotta be a federal grant in there somewhere…

8. Sports and fishing. I still cry when I see the final moments at Lake Placid, when we won gold. And Orr’s famous goal when he was suspended in the air, the crowd behind him off their feet, exploding like surf. I love to fish. A big striper at night on a defines me, calls me back to my childhood. When I fish an estuary my head goes many places, but I don’t think about sturgeon. Their image hasn't touched me, become part of my soul.

10. Who has the jurisdiction on this? Who makes the final call? No FMP, not much data… ASMFC or the Mid-Atlantic Council or New England. Or both. Or all three?

11. To help the sturgeon is to help all anadromous fish: striped bass, shad and river herring. Let’s get out there and get our hands dirty. Pull a shopping cart from the Connecticut, the Taunton. Clean up the rivers. Let’s use good, basic husbandry. Leave the rest in God’s hands.

From the Publisher: J.P. Lee is an outstanding writer and a deckhand on an inshore fishing boat in Rhode Island. He majored in Fisheries Science at the University of Rhode Island and has worked on research boats, oyster farms and many kinds of commercial fishing boats (trawlers, lobster boats, gillnetters and longliners).

J.P. Lee

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