N.Y. DEC Reports Recovery Signs for Atlantic Sturgeon

A joint Federal and State 2015 Juvenile Atlantic Sturgeon Survey shows the highest number of Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson River in the 10-year history of the survey and the trend of the results show an increasing juvenile sturgeon abundance (see chart below), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Acting Commissioner Basil Seggos has announced.

"Juvenile Atlantic sturgeon are at the highest level recorded in the Hudson River in the last 10 years. These survey results are an encouraging sign for the recovery of Atlantic sturgeon," Acting Commissioner Seggos said. "We are cautiously optimistic that, with our continued vigilance and efforts to protect this species, Atlantic sturgeon will have a secure future."

Commercial fishing rates for Atlantic sturgeon exceeded the ability of the fish to replenish themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New York led the way in conservation through implementation of a harvest moratorium for Atlantic sturgeon in 1996. In 1998, an amendment of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic sturgeon resulted in a coast wide moratorium on Atlantic sturgeon harvest for 40 years and aimed to protect two generations of females in each spawning stock.

The juvenile Atlantic sturgeon abundance survey began in 2006 as part of the DEC's Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda. The survey was designed by DEC in collaboration with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and was implemented to track the response of Atlantic sturgeon to the closure of commercial sturgeon fisheries. Since sturgeon are a long-lived species, with Hudson River fish beginning to spawn at 10 to 20 years old and living as long as 60 years, signs of recovery were expected to be slow. This slow pace of recovery contributed to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listing Hudson River Atlantic sturgeon as Endangered in 2012. Encouragingly, biologist are now seeing a steady increase in the number of Atlantic sturgeon in the Hudson River as the first protected fish are coming into their prime breeding years.

As identified in the NMFS Atlantic sturgeon status review, threats remain, including from accidental mortality when other fish are harvested along the Atlantic coast, habitat degradation, impingement and entrainment from water withdrawals, and mortality from vessel strikes. DEC continues to monitor these threats and evaluate and implement measures to prevent or mitigate their impact on Atlantic sturgeon.

In addition to breeding populations, DEC also maintains publicly available records of sturgeon deaths to monitor the status and assess threats to the population. In June 2012, in response to the Federal "endangered" listing of the species, DEC updated its website to direct all reports to a centralized location. Since improving data collection, the number of reported sturgeon deaths began to rise.

DEC considers the current level of sturgeon mortality a serious matter, and continues to evaluate options to better determine the cause of mortality and options for prevention. However, the increase in reported sturgeon mortality reported to the DEC is likely related to the increase in outreach and centralization of sturgeon mortality reporting and the increased abundance of Atlantic sturgeon in the Estuary, rather than a specific source or project. In addition there is no evidence that the construction of the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge is the cause of the increased number of reported sturgeon mortality, as the wide geographic spread of the reported mortalities (129 miles in 2015; 56 miles in 2014) suggest that the cause of the mortalities is not occurring at a discrete site. DEC continues to participate in the development of the ASMFC stock assessment for the Atlantic sturgeon, scheduled for completion in 2017. This assessment will summarize the current coast wide status of the species and identify opportunities to continue making progress toward the recovery of the species.