Down in the swirling sediment of the Bay’s bottom, an ancient creature combs the sand for small sea life to consume. Its bottom-feeding mouth descends from its jaw as white and elegant as a a lady’s elbow length glove unrolling down a slender arm. Sturgeon like these, holdovers from the era of the dinosaur, are mammoth reminders of a Bay where the scale of everything- fish, trees, predators- was once much, much larger. Plated beneath their tough, starburst-patterened skin with scutes, hard bony armor that protrudes along the fish’s belly and back, sturgeon seem perfectly suited for a Chesapeake where what was under the water was just as fierce and massive as the things that dwelt above.
There are two kinds of sturgeon that have lurked in the Bay’s channels: the shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) and the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus). Both grow incredibly slowly, but can attain a size of (in a few stunning examples) 15 feet or more, and over 800 pounds. They also are not quick to replenish their stock, as the females take almost 20 years to mature. But in the Chesapeake of millennia past, that hardly mattered. Their gargantuan size meant that they had almost no natural predators when they returned to the Bay twice a year to spawn, and the small mollusks, crustaceans, and other benthic organisms they hoovered off the Bay’s bottom were richly abundant. Sturgeon could originally be found in all of North America’s Atlantic tributaries, and in the fall and spring, courses of them moved along the rivers that connected to the ocean, occasionally breaking the water’s surface with a mighty thrust skyward.
As long as there have been people living along the Bay’s tideline, the residents of the coves and inslets of the watershed have been subsisting off of the living Chesapeake cornucopia. Sturgeon, of course, are no exception, especially considering the sheer mass of food provided by the capture of just one fish. The first Chesapeake people to land sturgeon were Indians, as evidenced by archaeologist’s findings of enormous scutes still haunting their ancient trash pits, known as middens. Early colonists described the daring technique the Native Americans traditionally used to captured the sturgeon:
“The Indian way of Catching Sturgeon, when they came into the narrow parts of the Rivers, was by a Man’s clapping a Noose over the Tail, and by keeping fast his hold. Thus a Fish fmding it self intangled, would flounce, and often pull him under Water, and then that Man was counted a Cockarouse, or brave Fellow, that wou’d not let go; till with Swimming, Wading, and Diving, he had tired the Sturgeon, and brought it ashore.” Robert Beverley, 1705.
Given the lack of an Algonquian written language, the only accounts that exist to describe the enormous fish are from the first wave of colonists. John Smith, in particular, wrote often about sturgeon and its roe, which were a familiar luxury food in Europe and therefore quickly became a regular part of the meager diet for the colonial transplants. But even the most savory delicacy will lose its appeal after weeks on the menu, and as the Jamestown settlers had little else to sustain them, they soon got creative with their sturgeon meals:
“We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog or man, of which the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar, sorrel, and other wholesome herbs, would make bread and good meat.” John Smith, 1608.
Smith also described the abundance of sturgeon during the first few years of European settlement in the Chesapeake:
“In summer no place affords more plenty of sturgeon, nor in winter more abundance of fowl, especially in time of frost. There was once taken fifty-two sturgeon at a draught, at another draught sixty-eight. From the latter end of May till the end of June are taken few but young sturgeon of two foot or a yard long. From thence till the midst of September them of two or three yards long and a few others. And in four or five hours with one net were ordinarily taken seven or eight; often more, seldom less.” John Smith, 1608.
As the surge of colonists continued, sturgeon remained a staple of the diet in the tidewater for the newcomers as they fanned out across the watershed to establish tobacco homesteads on remote creeks and rivers. There were also hopes that sturgeon could be an early driver of the colonial export engine, with the flesh, the caviar, and the oil packed and sent back to turn a hefty profit in Europe, where the overfished European counterpart was already commanding a princely sum. However, preservation was inadequate, and the arrival of barrels of spoiled fish at the docks in London ensured Chesapeake sturgeon wouldn’t take off internationally for several centuries.
Sturgeon being processed dockside, 19th century.
By the 19th century, with technological innovations during the Industrial Era, preservation techniques had made great strides forward, and almost overnight the fisheries along the East Coast boomed as millions of mouths suddenly had the opportunity to buy preserved fish, far from the ocean. Sturgeon was no exception. Initally, harvests were high and the flesh, skin, caviar, and oil was exported internationally to enormous profits. Even the swim bladder was used to create isinglass, a gelatinous material used in confectionaries, and to clarify beer and wine. But given the ponderously slow rate of sturgeon growth and reproduction, the boom didn’t last long.
Sturgeon at a Maryland dock, 1901.
“Catch records from the 1880s show a great abundance of Atlantic sturgeon; with catches of 17,700 lbs from the Rappahannock River, 51,661 lbs. from the York River and tributaries, and 108,900 lbs. from the James River. However, by 1920, the catch of Atlantic sturgeon for the entire Chesapeake Bay amounted to only 22,888 lbs. and the fish was considered scarce (Hildebrand and Schroeder 1928). By 1928 Virginia had enacted a law asserting, "that no sturgeon less than 4 feet long may be removed from the waters of the State” . The Chesapeake Bay Atlantic sturgeon fishery continued to harvest fish, but at a fraction of its previous rates.“ source
Sturgeon continued to make rare photo-worthy cameos in Bay-area fish shops throughout the 20th century.
Today, the sturgeon fishery is completely closed in the Chesapeake, as it has been since 1997. Due to overfishing, the creation of dams that block their spawning habitat, and the decline of the Chesapeake’s water quality, sturgeon are incredibly rare in the Bay (with the majority of the remaining population found in the James River or occasionally in the Chesapeake’s main stem). This February, Atlantic Sturgeon was even classified as an endangered species. But it isn’t too late for the dinosaur of the Chesapeake deep. In Maryland, an environmental research center in Cambridge is working on spawning a solution to the sturgeon’s population problem.
Sturgeon fry from an experimental stock raised to replenish threatened Bay populations.
Hundreds of tiny sturgeon are raised at Horn Point Labs every year. A satellite campus of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, these Horn Point sturgeon are destined to be raised and studied for information about sturgeon reproduction and growth, and ultimately may provide part of a restoration, along with water quality and habitat improvements. Until then, you can get up close and personal with these lingering remainders of the dinosaur era through the webcam at Horn Point’s laboratories here. Watch these primordial sturgeon and imagine a Chesapeake where the water ran deep and clear, and longboard-sized giants like these cruised the arable meadows on the bottom, plucking their meals delicately from the sandy substrate.