The Atlantic sturgeon is the largest of the three sturgeons found in New York State. They can live 30 to 60 years, grow 6 to 14 feet in length, and can weigh 200 pounds or more. Individuals weighing up to 800 pounds and measuring 14 feet in length have been documented and even larger fish have been reported (Smith 1985).
This anadromous species is found in the Hudson River north to the dam in Troy. It has suffered substantial declines from historical numbers, due to overfishing, and a harvest moratorium was imposed in 1996. Although the Hudson River population is one of two populations that are presumed to be the healthiest in the United States (Atlantic Sturgeon Status Review Team 2007), the stock is at its lowest level in the past 120 years (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006), and the species is a candidate for federal listing.
Atlantic sturgeon populations in the Hudson River are reported to have declined substantially from overharvest from commercial fishing through 1996, when a harvest moratorium was imposed (Sturgeon Notes, Cornell University, November 1993; Atlantic Sturgeon Status Review Team 1998; NMFS 1998 in NatureServe 2007). The species may be stable at current population levels, which are the lowest in the past 120 years (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006).
Atlantic sturgeon have supported commercial and subsistence fishing since colonial times (Kahnle et al. 1998 in Atlantic Sturgeon Status Review Team 2007), but are currently at their lowest levels in the past 120 years (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006).
The threats to Atlantic sturgeon include dredging and other potentially harmful activities that take place in spawning and nursery areas. Ocean bycatch throughout the migratory range may also cause declines (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006).
Restriction of fisheries that have the greatest bycatch, both spatially and temporally, are needed. The moratorium on the possession of Atlantic sturgeon should also be maintained (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006).
Recommended Atlantic sturgeon habitat research includes the following: Trawl surveys in the near-shore waters of New York, along the south shore of Long Island, should take place in order to identify juvenile and sub-adult fish concentration areas; sonic tagging and tracking of wild juveniles should take place in order to identify seasonal habitat use by juveniles within the Hudson River estuary; sonic tagging and tracking of wild adults should take place in order to identify spawning locations, as well as to determine pre-spawning and post-spawning sturgeon concentrations; and archival tags should be used to gather data on marine habitat use by adult sturgeon. Life history research should include gathering date on age and length correlation in order to calculate age estimates for juvenile fish based on their lengths (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2006).
During spawning, the Atlantic sturgeon can be found in the freshwater and brackish/salt water regions of the Hudson River north to Albany, but the species is usually confined to the deeper parts of the river. The adults spend most of their time at sea and the juveniles spend the first few years of their lives in freshwater streams.
The range includes the tidal portion of the Hudson River to the dam at Troy.
The Atlantic surgeon ranges along the Atlantic coast and major estuarine drainages from Labrador, Canada to northeastern Florida (at least formerly). When not spawning, they spend most of their adult life in salt or brackish water in the Atlantic Ocean from the Hamilton River, and George River, Ungava Bay, Labrador, south to St. Johns River, Florida, and ranging south in winter to Port Canaveral and Hutchinson Island, Florida. Spawning areas and juvenile fish are found in large coastal rivers and estuaries such as the fresh and brackish waters of the St. Lawrence River, Canada; Gulf of Maine; Hudson River, New York; Delaware River, Pennsylvania; Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, Maryland; Delaware Bay, Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James River estuaries, Virginia; Roanoke River, North Carolina; Edisto, Pee Dee, Savannah, Ashepoo, Cooper, Congaree, Santee, Sanpit, Winyah and Waccamaw Rivers, South Carolina; and St. Mary's River, Georgia (Gilbert 1989, Collins and Smith 1997). They may currently occur in Florida only as a winter resident (Hipes 1996). Little is known of the spawning grounds in Canadian waters (Marine and Coastal Species Information System 1996).
The Atlantic sturgeon is a fairly large and primitive-looking fish, with a shark-like tail (heterocercal caudal fin) and rows of boney plates on the head and along the body. There are 6 to 9 bony plates, mostly in pairs, behind the dorsal fin. The snout is long and narrow, upturned in young fish, and sharply V-shaped, with the mouth and four large fleshy barbells located on the underside. The coloration varies from olive-green to blue-black on the upper sides, gradually shading to white on the underside. The boney plates along the back have white tips. Atlantic sturgeon that weigh more than 200 pounds have been taken in the Hudson River, and the species can attain lengths of up to 14 feet and weigh up to or greater than 800 pounds. The eggs, also known as caviar, are sticky and turn black as they develop (Stegemann 1994, Smith 1985).
The long, pointy snout, and great length of adult fish distinguishes the Atlantic sturgeon from the shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum), which are the only two species of sturgeon in the Hudson River. Atlantic sturgeon have several bony plates along the base of the anal fin and these are not present in shortnose sturgeon. The width of the mouth on specimens as small as three inches can also be used to differentiate between the two species (Smith 1985).
Both adults and juveniles can be identified from shortnose sturgeon.
Atlantic sturgeons migrate from saltwater to freshwater to reproduce. They typically reach sexual maturity around 9 years of age. During spawning, the sticky eggs are broadcast, attaching themselves to vegetation or the bottom of the river and are left unattended. A female can carry over one million eggs. They gradually turn black and hatch in 8-10 days. The young can remain in freshwater for up to seven years before heading out to the sea. Sturgeons may be seen basking near the surface of the water (Stegemann 1994, Smith 1985).
The Atlantic sturgeon is a bottom feeder, consuming worms, amphipods, isopods, and small fish, especially sand lance. In freshwater, they eat insects, amphipods, and oligochaetes (Smith 1985).
Adult males move up the Hudson River to spawn starting in April, with females arriving in May. They move back to the sea between August and November, with the females leaving after spawning.
The time of year you would expect to find Atlantic Sturgeon active and reproducing in New York.
Acipenser oxyrinchus Mitchill, 1815
Atlantic Sturgeon Status Review Team. 1998. Status review of Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus). Report to National Marine Fisheries Service. 126 pp.
Atlantic Sturgeon Status Review Team. 2007. Status review of Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus). Report to National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Regional Office. February 23, 2007. 174 pp.
Binkowski, F. P., and S. I. Doroshov (editors). 1985. North American Sturgeons: Biology and Aquaculture Potential. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Dordrecht, Netherlands. 163 pp.
Brundage, H.M. and R. Meadows. 1982. The Atlantic Sturgeon, Acipensier oxyrhynchus, in the Delaware River estuary, Fish. Bull. 80(2): 337-343.
Burkhead, N. M., and R. E. Jenkins. 1991. Fishes. Pages 321-409 in K. Terwilliger (coordinator). Virginia's Endangered Species: Proceedings of a Symposium. McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg, Virginia.
Collins, M. R., S. G. Rogers, and T. I. J. Smith. 1996. Bycatch of sturgeons along the southern Atlantic coast of the USA. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 16:24-29.
Cross, D. H. 1992. The Suwannee River is home to a rare and unusual fish. Fish and Wildlife News, Winter 1992, pp. 17 and 23.
Gilbert, C. R. 1989. Species profiles: life histories and environmental requirements of coastal fishes and invertebrates (Mid-Atlantic Bight) Atlantic and shortnose sturgeons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Report. 82(11.22). U.S Army Corps of Engineers TR EL-82-4. 28 pp.
Gilbert, C.R. (editor). 1992. Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida. Volume II. Fishes. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. xl + 247 pp.
Hoff, J.G. 1980. Review of the Present Status of the stocks of the Atlantic Sturgeon Acipenser oxyrhynchus Mitchill. Prepared for National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeastern Region, Gloucester MA 136 pp.
Lee, D. S., C. R. Gilbert, C. H. Hocutt, R. E. Jenkins, D. E. McAllister, and J. R. Stauffer, Jr. 1980. Atlas of North American freshwater fishes. North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, Raleigh, North Carolina. i-x + 854 pp.
NatureServe. 2007. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 6.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available http://www.natureserve.org/explorer. (Accessed: December 19, 2007).
Nelson, J. S. 1984. Fishes of the world. Second edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York. xv + 523 pp.
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2020. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.
Ong, T.-L., J. Stabile, I. Wirgin, and J. R. Waldman. 1996. Genetic divergence between Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus and A. o. desotoi as assessed by mitochondrial DNA sequencing analysis. Copeia 1996:464-469.
Page, L. M., and B. M. Burr. 1991. A field guide to freshwater fishes: North America north of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. 432 pp.
Robins, C.R., R.M. Bailey, C.E. Bond, J.R. Brooker, E.A. Lachner, R.N. Lea, and W.B. Scott. 1991. Common and scientific names of fishes from the United States and Canada. American Fisheries Society, Special Publication 20. 183 pp.
Scott, W. B., and E. J. Crossman. 1973. Freshwater fishes of Canada. Fisheries Research Board of Canada, Bulletin 184. 966 pp.
Smith, C.L. 1985. The Inland Fishes of New York State. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 522pp.
Smith, T. I. J., and J. P. Clugston. 1996. Status and management of Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus, in North America. Sturgeon Notes (Cornell University) (4):1. [Abstract of a paper to appear in Enivironmental Biology of Fishes]
Stegemann, E.C. 1994. Sturgeon - the king of the freshwater fishes. New York State Conservationist. 49(1).
Werner, R.G. 1980. Freshwater fishes of New York State. N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. 186 pp.
Information for this guide was last updated on: July 11, 2019
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2020. Online Conservation Guide for Acipenser oxyrinchus. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/atlantic-sturgeon/. Accessed September 23, 2020.