A 14-foot sturgeon was spotted last year in the Hudson River. This video from the DEC shows how they are trying to protect and grow the endangered sturgeon population
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY, N.Y. – What a find.
Researchers last June using sonar equipment on the Hudson River in New York made a remarkable discovery: a 14-foot sturgeon, probably weighing 800 pounds and 80 to 90 years old, was lurking deep below the surface.
John Madsen, the University of Delaware geologist running the sonar, said he almost couldn’t believe when the reading showed up on his equipment near Hyde Park.
“It was amazing,” Madsen said Friday. “When we first saw it, I said, ‘That’s unbelievable.’”
The discovery was welcomed news for environmental advocates and the state Department of Environmental Conservation as they seek to restore the endangered sturgeon population that had been near extinction on the river.
Madsen and a colleague have traversed the Hudson River in recent years helping the state and local groups track the path of sturgeon in an effort to bolster their ranks.
Part of the goal has been to assess whether the Atlantic sturgeon is being hurt by the commercial vessels that drop anchor on the river in the area where the fish spawn in May through early July, according to National Geographic, which first reported on the findings Thursday.
It’s rare, though, to come across a sturgeon that large, Madsen said. Usually they are about 3 feet to 10 feet long.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation produced this video in January 2019 showing how it is trying to restore the sturgeon population in New York.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
How rare is this?
Since sturgeon are bottom feeders, the big sturgeon was spotted using a side-scan sonar about 45 feet to 50 feet below the surface.
“You could see it coming by and you can see on the screen, the initial reflection, and you can also see the shadow of it,” Madsen said. “I knew at that time that was a really large fish.”
The DEC said the discovery of the fish demonstrates that the 40-year moratorium on fishing for sturgeon, implemented in 1998 with other Atlantic Coast states, is working.
DEC conducts a survey during spawning season and catches about 100 to 150 sturgeon to measure them, tag them and sends them back into the water.
They also conduct an annual juvenile Atlantic sturgeon survey that measures pre-migrant fish in Haverstraw Bay to see if there are new births.
After the spawning season, the sturgeon will head south down the Atlantic coast.
The state is working with the Delaware State University and the University of Delaware to conduct a riverwide estimate of the sturgeon population in the Hudson River.
But DEC was unaware of the 14-foot sturgeon until Madsen found it.
“I hope that we don’t catch that fish because our boat is way too small to deal with a fish like that,” joked Amanda Higgs, a DEC biologist, leading the program.
Sturgeon eggs are a prime source of caviar, and their meat was popular, making them in demand commercially since the late 1800s – so much so that they became scarce by the early 1990s.
As a result, New York closed its sturgeon fishery in 1996, and in 2012, the Atlantic sturgeon was listed as an endangered species.
Madsen estimates there could be less than 1,000 sturgeon in the Hudson River, but ultimately they would like thousands to be living in the river.
Sturgeon in the river is an ongoing sight along the Hudson Valley. One that an onlooker in Rockland County saw come ashore in 2017 was originally thought to be a shark.
During the construction of the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge on the river, more than 100 sturgeon were found dead, but state and federal officials say there was no evidence the deaths were directly the result of the bridge and the boats around it.
The state said it took necessary steps to protect the sturgeon population, and the number of deaths ultimately dipped.
Finding the big sturgeon again?
So what’s the odds of finding that 14-foot sturgeon again this spring? Madsen said, “It’s a needle in a haystack.”
His group’s sonar is dragged behind a 24-foot boat that can measure about 100 feet on each side. The Hudson River is as wide as 3 1/2 miles.
“At any given time we’re looking at a small section of the river, so it’s tough to look for a particular image you want to see – something that would be moving in that environment,” Madsen said.
Environmental groups said that while finding a massive sturgeon is a special event, it should also put a spotlight on the need to bolster the prehistoric fish’s population on the river.
“These fish are still a long way off from recovery, and we must remember they are still endangered,” said George Jackman, the habitat restoration manager for Riverkeeper, a local environmental group.
“This is why we still move forward to protect these fish.”
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