National Aquarium General Curator Jack Cover quickly identified the fish in those photos as an Atlantic sturgeon, a species of fish that has swum through the Earth’s oceans for 120 million years.
That's right—fish just like the sturgeon that our curious emailer found were swimming around when dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops roamed the Earth. No wonder it looks prehistoric! The sturgeon is a long-lived, large fish, and over a lifespan of up to 60 years, can grow to be as long as 15 feet and weigh 800 pounds.
But longevity is no predictor for continued survival in a rapidly changing environment. Set against historical averages, present Atlantic sturgeon populations are dangerously low, and several specific populations are listed as endangered.
Since the colonial period, sturgeons have been coveted for their meat, eggs and oil. In 1887, 7 million pounds of sturgeon were harvested, but by 1989, only 400 pounds were recorded. This overfishing led to a steep decline in sturgeon populations. A ban on sturgeon harvesting followed, but sturgeon populations are still struggling to rebound. Challenges include the loss of spawning areas, poor water quality and accidental vessel strikes.
Today, researchers and conservationists are working hard to help reclaim sturgeon habitat and protect and track breeding populations. If you find one of these endangered living fossils, you’re encouraged to report it to federal or state authorities. If the sturgeon can adapt and rebound, it may roam our oceans for another 120 million years.
Stay tuned for more updates on the future of these amazing fish!