Department of Marine Resources biologist Craig King, center, supervises technicians Abraham Lebel, left, and Anthony Holzhauser in late June as they scrutinize a shortnose sturgeon collected in a net set by the agency in the Kennebec River between Chelsea and Hallowell. Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal file photo

Not many people are likely to be eating caviar this holiday season, and that’s a good thing for one species of fish that I’m thankful has returned to waters in both Maine and Missouri, my now and former homes — the sturgeon. These are strange, giant fish that have somehow survived since the time of the dinosaurs only to become threatened in recent years due to a number of human-induced and environmental factors. For anyone living in Brunswick, you might have heard stories that sound like fish tales of these enormous fish leaping out of the water and creating a large splash. While not too many years ago these would have been tall tales, thanks to some effective conservation efforts, seeing sturgeon leaping in the spring is now a frequent occurrence in the Androscoggin and can be seen from shore just below the falls at the Brunswick-Topsham bridge.

Maine and Missouri do not share the same species of sturgeon, but the species in both locations share some similar characteristics. Sturgeon are unusually heavy and skeletal in their outward appearance due to a series of bony plates along their bodies and even over part of their heads. The Atlantic sturgeon, one of the types found in Maine, can weigh over 600 pounds and be up to 13 feet in length! Sturgeon are typically solitary and cruise along the bottom feeling for food with barbels that dangle from their chins. They are also very long-lived with some species living up to 100 years. One related aspect of their life history is that they do not reproduce frequently, so if too many are removed from the population it takes a long time for that population to be replenished. This is one of the reasons for the demise of several species of sturgeon. Sturgeon eggs were prized for caviar in the early 1900s, which meant catching them as they were about to spawn. Unlike salmon who die after spawning, sturgeon do not, so catching the egg-bearing females not only took out the next generation of the population but also removed the reproductive females who could have otherwise produced another batch of eggs.

There are two species of sturgeon that live in Maine: The Atlantic sturgeon and the shortnose sturgeon. Atlantic sturgeon are larger, sometimes reaching a weight of 800 pounds and measuring up to 14 feet. They also have a different shaped head and mouth. As you might guess, the shortnose sturgeon has a shorter snout, particularly as compared to the Atlantic sturgeon, which has a somewhat scoop-shaped, elongated snout. Both species are anadromous fish, which means that they start their life in fresh water and then spend most of their adult life in salt water, only returning to fresh water when it is time to spawn. As is the case for several species of fish native to Maine, the damming of waterways prevented fish like sturgeon from being able to get back upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds. In addition, the interruption of water flow due to damming reduced the oxygen in the water that is critical for newly hatched larval fish. A moratorium on fishing for sturgeon was implemented in 1998 and that, in combination with the removal of dams and improvements in water quality, has led to their recovery. The population of both species has nearly doubled since the late 1970s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, they are still listed as threatened in the Gulf of Maine and endangered in the rest of their geographic range which extends from Labrador, Canada, down to Florida.

In the land of the freshwater, Missouri has two species of sturgeon: the pallid and shovelnose. The shovelnose is more common and differs from the pallid sturgeon in both its size and its shape. Appropriate to its name, the shovelnose sturgeon has a characteristic spoon or shovel-shaped head. And, appropriate to its name, the pallid sturgeon, is very pale in color and grows increasingly white as they age. The pallid sturgeon is larger, weighing up to 85 pounds, making it the largest freshwater fish in North America. It is also particularly long-lived, taking up to 15 years to reach maturity and living up to 100 years — one of the reasons that it is particularly slow to recover from the impacts of overfishing, damming and water pollution. In 1990, the pallid sturgeon was placed on the endangered species list, as there were fewer than 175 individuals left in the population. It has since begun a gradual but tenuous recovery thanks to significant conservation measures.

Fortunately today, along with the removal of dams and improvements in water quality, wild sturgeon are no longer caught for their caviar. Instead, sturgeon are farmed and then harvested for their prized eggs. So, if caviar somehow makes it onto your holiday menu, you’re not harming the recovery of these ancient species. And, not that we are even officially into winter, but when spring finally comes, look for these giants leaping out of the Androscoggin and be thankful for their recovery.

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