Sturgeon at Caviar Point, NJ
The Sturgeon of Caviar Point
Our friend Trudy Hanson, who leads the Sustainable Jersey program for our town, Greenwich, sent me a picture of an Atlantic sturgeon found dead on the Delaware Bayshore. Ironically, the unfortunate animal washed up at Caviar Point, a lonely place that was once the center of the Delaware Bay’s long-defunct sturgeon fishery. This rare fish, who like the red knot is now a candidate for federal listing as a threatened species, washed ashore exactly at the location where hundreds of people found productive employment over a century ago.
Of course the fishery could not sustain itself. It was a good run though, from 1860 to the early 1900s, the harvest of sturgeon and caviar employed up to 400 fishermen. In the late 1800’s entrepreneurs pioneered the use of sealed jars to market caviar which out-competed Russian caviar, which at the time was imported in wooden casks. The industry was centered at Caviar Point, a landing on Stow Creek in Salem County. Sadly, overfishing and pollution decimated sturgeon numbers and the population collapsed in the early 1900’s. Both the New Jersey and Delaware legislatures passed laws to prevent the collapse by outlawing the taking of fish less than 4-feet long, but it was too late.
Like most fisheries the sturgeon fishery was eventually re-opened, but even in the best of conditions, it takes a long time for sturgeon to restore themselves. The exact age of sexual maturity is not known, because it changes as you go north. In Delaware Bay sturgeon mature at 10-20 years old, in St Lawrence River it is 20-30 years. Sturgeon take longer to mature than any other bony fish.
That’s why they are so easy to overexploit. A sturgeon can live until it is over 60 years old and they breed anywhere from once a year to once every 5 years. In 1890 they were killing over 3,000 tons of sturgeon per year in the mid-Atlantic region; 75% came from the Delaware Bay. After the population crashed in the early 1900’s, a low level harvest persisted. In the mid 1990’s, the population was about to fully recover when commercial fishermen increased harvests ultimately causing the population to crash again. The ASMFC, the “watchdog” of the Atlantic Coast fishery, closed the harvest in 1998 until 20 year old sturgeon start reappearing.
So Trudy’s sturgeon could have been an old timer that escaped the most recent carnage. To me, the dead sturgeon and the moribund fishery are emblematic of the poor condition of the entire Delaware Bay fishery and the mismanagement it represents. While its population teeters on the brink of extirpation other Bay species skim the bottom. Despite years of attention the horseshoe crab still shows no honest signs of recovery and the weakfish, the most sought-after fish in the Bay, is economically extinct. For the sturgeon there is no real help in sight, in fact the clouds grow darker. New dredging in the bay for channel deepening and other projects, like the LG gas facility proposed for the upper bay, destroy sturgeon habitat. Meanwhile the up-river migration of the salt line decreases the area of fresh water breeding habitat for the sturgeon. Will it survive?
The striped bass points to the only feasible hope. It’s population was nearly destroyed by overfishing and it would have remained so if weren’t for the saltwater recreational fishermen who demanded it’s return. The fishery was closed for ten years, and when it reopened commercial fishing in NJ was banned. Now this fishery thrives and delights thousands of recreational fishermen. This is the power of people caring for wildlife. What would happen if more people cared for the sturgeon, horseshoe crab and weakfish or for that matter the Delaware Bay?