Acipenser brevirostrum is one of 5
North American Acipenser species. An evolutionarily primitive species,
dating back at least 70 million years, it is a large, elongate fish
that grow to approximately 1 1.3 m (3.3 - 4.3 feet) in length
(Page and Burr 1991). The upper jaw is elongate and ends in a blunt,
shovel-like, snout. The tail is shark-like (heterocercal), with
the upper lobe longer than the lower. The head is convex in profile,
and armored with bony plates. The mouth is ventral and broad. Four
barbels extend across the width of the snout and are set midway
between the mouth and the tip of the snout. No teeth are present
in adults. Five rows of bony scutes line the length of the body:
1 row is set mid-dorsally, 2 are set laterally and 2 are set dorso-laterally.
Scutes are somewhat sharper in young specimens, gradually becoming
blunter and rounded in older fish. Denticles are distributed in
small patches over the body surface (Bigelow et al. 1963; Robins,
C.R. and G.C. Ray, 1986 ; Gilbert 1989).
The dorsal and anal fins are set
posteriorly and are opposite one another, though the origin of the
anal fin is set behind the dorsal origin. No dorsal spines, anal
spines, or post-dorsal shields are present. There are 33-42 soft
dorsal rays, 18-24 anal rays, and 22-29 gill rakers. Body color
generally ranges from dark brown to black above, to a paler light
brown or yellow color ventrolaterally, to white ventrally. There
is little sexual dimorphism, though females tend to grow somewhat
larger. Sex can be determined externally only during spawning. Newly
hatched shortnose sturgeons are larger than Atlantic sturgeons (Acipenser
oxyrhinchus) of the same age, though after 2 years of age,
Atlantic sturgeons grow significantly larger (Bigelow et al. 1963;
Robins, C.R. and G.C. Ray, 1986 ; Gilbert 1989).
Shortnose sturgeons are sympatric with
Atlantic sturgeons. Adults are easily distinguished based on size:
shortnose sturgeons grow to approximately 1m (3.3 feet) in
length, while the Atlantic sturgeon grows longer than 4 m (13.1
feet). Additionally, the snout in shortnose sturgeons is broader
and shorter than in the Atlantic sturgeon. Atlantic sturgeons
also have a set of enlarged, bony plates set between the base of
the anal fin and the lateral row of scutes. These are not present
in shortnose sturgeons. Internally, the intestine of shortnose sturgeons
is much more darkly pigmented than in Atlantic sturgeons (Gilbert
II. HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Acipenser brevirostrum ranges along the entire Atlantic
coast of North America, from the Saint John River in New Brunswick,
Canada to the St. Johns River, Florida (Gilbert 1989). The federal
recovery plan (NMFS 1998) for this endangered fish identifies 19
distinct population segments, each defined as a river/estuarine
system in which shortnose sturgeons have been captured within the
generation time of the species (30 years). It is significantly more
common in northern portions of its range than it is in the south.
Shortnose sturgeons have been documented to occur in Volusia County
and some other areas of the IRL (Evermann and Bean 1898), but sightings
are extremely rare. One of the 19 population segments listed by
the NMFS is the St. Johns River Basin.
III. LIFE HISTORY AND
Age, Size, Lifespan:
Acipenser brevirostrum grows to a length of approximately
1m (3.3 feet). Maximum recorded length was reported by Birstein
(1993) as 143 cm (4.7 feet) total length (TL) in a specimen that
weighed 23 kg (50.7 pounds). Maximum known age is 67 years for females
and 30 years for males (Riede 2004).
Shortnose sturgeons are listed as Endangered throughout their range;
however, adults tend to be more abundant in the north than in the
south (Kynard 1996). Studies show populations in Maine, New York,
and Connecticut are apparently increasing slowly, to the point where
they may become downlisted to Threatened at some point in the future
(NMFS 1998). However, in the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida,
low juvenile abundance indicates that recruitment has not increased
despite an apparent increase in the adult population from the stocking
of hatchery-reared fish during 1985-1992 (NMFS 1998; Collins et
brevirostrum is an anadromous species that spends much of its
life in brackish or marine waters, but migrates into upstream, freshwater
areas of coastal rivers for spawning. Maturation is slow, and varies
according to latitude, with southern fish maturing faster than northern
fish (Gilbert 1989). Dadswell et al. (1984) reported shortnose sturgeons
maturing at a body size of approximately 45 55 cm (1.5 - 1.8 feet)
fork length (FL). Males matured at approximately 2 3 years of
age in Georgia, 3 5 years in South Carolina, and 10 11 years
in New Brunswick, Canada. Females mature over significantly longer
periods of time, with southern females becoming reproductive by
Age 6, and Canadian females maturing at 13 years of age. Dadswell
(1979) reported that for the population as a whole, the 50% maturation
average is 12.4 years for males and 17.2 years for females, with
first spawning occurring at 14 years in males, and 15 years in females.
Spawning periodicity in males is more frequent than in females.
Males in Canadian rivers spawned at 2-year intervals, while females
spawned approximately every 3-5 years (Dadswell 1979).
Prior to spawning, egg diameter is approximately
3.1 mm (0.12 inches), and ovaries may comprise as much as 25% of
female body weight (Dadswell 1979). Fecundity estimates have been
reported in several studies. Smith (1985) reported a range of 40,000
200,000 eggs per female; Heidt and Gilbert (1987) reported fecundity
of Florida fish as 79,000 90,000 eggs for females measuring 75
87 cm in length. Dadswell (1984) reported a range of 27,000
208,000 eggs per female in New Brunswick sturgeon; with mean of
11,568 eggs per kg body weight.
Reproduction varies latitudinally due to the
effect of differing temperature regimes, with southern sturgeons
beginning spawning migrations earlier than those in the north. Shortnose
sturgeons begin prespawning migrations earlier in the year than
do Atlantic sturgeons of similar latitudes, likely as the result
of water temperatures cues. Migration occurs throughout the winter
and spring months, with males typically leading migrating schools
(Dadswell et al. 1984).
Ripening and some non-ripening adults spend
the winter months in deep water in the lower reaches of rivers and
estuaries. In northern areas, arrival onto spawning ground corresponds
with water temperatures of 8 9 °C. Dadswell et al. (1984)
reported spawning occurs as early as February in Georgia, in April-May
in the Connecticut River, and as late as mid-May in New Brunswick;
usually at temperatures of 9-12 °C during or soon after peak
flows. Spawning is generally compressed and may be as short as 3
5 days (Taubert 1980), typically occurring well upriver from summer
foraging and nursery grounds Spawning adults may travel 200 km (124.3
miles) or more upstream (Kynard 1996). During spawning, males initiate
spawning behavior in response to release of female pheromones (Kynard
and Horgan 2002).
A variety of substrates are utilized for spawning,
and include areas of gravel, mixed sand-gravel, rubble, or even
large boulders (Dadswell et al. 1984). However, water velocity and
depth are perhaps more important than substrate type in determining
spawning location (Buckley and Kynard 1985). Current velocities
are generally low to moderate on spawning grounds, typically with
the range of 40 60 cm/sec (1.3 - 2 feet/sec). Buckley and Kynard
(1985) hypothesized that too slow a current would cause the highly
adhesive eggs to clump together, causing respiratory stress, allowing
for fungal growth, and perhaps increasing egg predation. However,
eggs released into flowing but not strong currents would not clump,
and their transport downstream would be assured.
Females in the Saint John River, New Brunswick
fast for approximately 8 months before spawning, whereas males continue
feeding (Dadswell 1979). Southern populations tend to fast during
the summer (Rogers et al. 1994).
Spent individuals gradually return to brackish
or marine waters. In the Savannah River, downstream migrations began
in mid-March and ended by early May, with individuals migrating
as much as 33 km/day (20.5 miles) (Hall et al. 1991). Huff
(1975) reported downstream migrations in Florida occurring from
October through December.
During spawning, eggs are
broadcast into flowing water. Eggs measure approximately 3 mm (0.12
inches) in diameter (Vladykov and Greely 1963), are demersal, and
become strongly adhesive after approximately 20 minutes. Under laboratory
conditions, eggs hatched after 8 days at a water temperature of
and 13 days at a temperature of 10 °C.
Larvae are blackish in color at hatching and measure 7 11 mm (0.3
- 0.4 inches) in length (Dadswell et al. 1984). Laboratory hatched
larvae hatched were photonegative, relatively weak swimmers, and
readily sought out any available cover (NMFS 1998).
Yolk-sac larvae are robust and become
a dull brown color with scattered melanophores that increased in
number as yolk is absorbed. The mouth becomes visible when larvae
reach 8.4 mm (0.33 inches) in length; gills are visible at 9.5 mm
(0.37 inches); barbells are visible at 9.7 mm (0.38 inches); the
eye is fully formed at 11 mm (0.43 inches). Fins are well developed
when larvae reach 14 mm (0.55 inches), approximately the time when
the yolk-sac is fully absorbed (Dadswell et al. 1984). Dermal ossification
and dorsal scutes become visible at approximately 19.0 mm (0.74
inches), with metamorphosis complete by 31.5 mm (1.24 inches). At
this size, the snout becomes more elongate, scutes are countable,
and the skull is ossified and opaque. The juvenile stage persists
until young fish reach approximately 45 cm (17.7 inches) FL at about
3 years of age, depending on latitude (Dadswell et al. 1984). Larvae
of shortnose sturgeon can be distinguished from Atlantic sturgeon
larvae at approximately 14.5 cm (0.57 inches) TL based on the ratio
of mouth width to head width, with the shortnose sturgeon having
a significantly wider mouth (Bath et al. 1981).
Buckley and Kynard (1985) reported
active, vertical swimming in newly hatched larvae, perhaps an adaptation
to downriver transport. Larvae and juveniles have been reported
from, and may prefer, deep river channels (Richmond and Kynard 1995)
above the salt wedge. Bath et al. (1981) reported larvae occurring
at depths of 9.1 9.8 m (29.9 - 32.1 feet) where water temperatures
were 15.0 24.5 °C
(59 - 76.1 °F),
in salinities of approximately 0 22 parts per thousand (ppt).
Growth is rapid in the first 3 years
of life (Dadswell 1979), with shortnose sturgeon in the southern
portion of the range growing faster than northern fishes (Dadswell
et al. 1984). At the end of the first year of life, juveniles may
measure 14 30 cm (5.5 - 11.8 inches), depending on latitude (Dadswell
et al. 1984). Daily growth was estimated to be as much as 0.3 mm
(0.01 inches) per day (Pekovitch 1979). After 3 years, juveniles
enter a period of even, but less rapid growth until approximately
8 10 years of age.
With the onset of sexual maturity,
males grow somewhat faster than females of the same age. Growth
decelerates after age 11 in males, but remains steady throughout
life. Females have a more inconsistent growth pattern, where periods
of rapid growth are followed by check periods of 3-5 years where
little, if any, measurable growth occurs. After check periods, there
is a burst of rapid growth. Dadswell et al. (1984) suggested check
periods were related to gonadal development and maturation. At or
near age 15, there is a consistent period of growth reduction that
likely corresponds to preparation for the first spawning period.
IV. PHYSICAL TOLERANCES
Upper and lower lethal temperature have not been determined in Acipenser
brevirostrum as it is an Endangered species. However, observations
suggest that 22 °C
(71.6 °F) may
be approaching an upper tolerance limit, as individuals are seldom
found in areas where water temperatures exceed 22 °C
(Dovel 1979 and Dadswell et al 1984). In Florida, surface water
temperatures above 21 °C
(69.8 °F) apparently
stimulated movement of shortnose sturgeons into deeper waters. However,
in the Connecticut River, Dadswell et al. (1984) reported that sturgeons
are frequently captured in less than 1m of water with temperatures
of 27-30 °C
(80.6 - 86 °F) (Dadswell
et al. 1984). Flournoy et al. (1992) reported physiologic stress
when water temperature exceeded 28 °C
Bath et al. (1981) reported larvae occurring at depths of 9.1
9.8 m (29.9 - 32.1 feet) where water temperatures were 15.0 24.5
(59 - 76.1 °F).
Shortnose sturgeons prefer lower salinity
than pure seawater, typically in the range of 30 - 31 ppt (Holland
and Yelverton 1973; Dadswell et al 1984). In areas where Acipenser
brevirostrum occurs with the Atlantic sturgeon, A. oxyrhinchus,
the two species apparently segregate the habitat according to salinity
preferences, with Atlantic sturgeon preferring more saline areas.
Gilbert (1990) suggested that though the shortnose sturgeon is capable
of entering the open ocean, it is hesitant to do so. This factor
may be the single largest consideration limiting extensive coastal
migrations of this species. Bath et al. (1981) reported larvae occurring
in salinities of approximately 0 22 ppt.
Other Physical Tolerances:
The long life span of Acipenser brevirostrum, as well as
its lifestyle as a benthic predator likely predisposes individuals
to the effects of bioaccumulation of heavy metals, pesticides, polychlorinated
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
(Cooper 1989; Sindermann 1994; NMFS 1998).
Jenkins et al. (1993) reported 90% mortality in laboratory populations
of shortnose sturgeon larvae when dissolved oxygen concentrations
were below 2.5 mg/L. Though, fishes older than 100 days were able
to tolerate the same levels of dissolved oxygen with less than 20%
V. COMMUNITY ECOLOGY
brevirostrum is primarily a benthic feeder, though some observations
report it selecting snails from the leaves of freshwater or estuarine
Dadswell (1979) reported an ontogenetic shift
in prey preferences in shortnose sturgeon. Young juveniles reportedly
fed primarily on benthic crustaceans and insect larvae. Fishes 20-30
cm (7.9 -11.8 inches) FL fed primarily on cladocerans (Dadswell
et al. 1984), while adults fed on mollusks, polychaetes, and small
benthic fishes. Zebra mussel remains have also been found in feces
of individuals from the Hudson River (USFWS 1998; Dadswell et al.
1984; Dadswell 1979 ).
Shortnose sturgeons are indiscriminate feeders
that use their broad snouts to root out benthic organisms. Prey
movement is detected by the 4 barbels set in front of the mouth.
The mouth is protrusible and suction feeding occurs when prey are
detected. This mode of feeding also brings large amounts of mud
and organic debris into the mouth. Dadswell (1979) reported stomach
contents often contained 85 95% mud and other non-food material.
Shortnose sturgeons do not compete strongly with other species (USFWS
1998). There may be some level of competition with other benthic
feeders, especially those that consume mollusks, however, any direct
competitive interaction with another species is likely offset by
the shortnose sturgeons non-specific feeding habits.
Acipenser brevirostrum is not the main prey item of any
known species (USFWS
Dadswell et al. (1984) reported Acipenser brevirostrum
is sometimes parasitized by sea lampreys, coelenterates, nematodes,
leeches, arthropods, and flatworms. Infestation intensity was reportedly
Shortnose sturgeons inhabit river mouths,
lakes, estuaries, bays, and some near-shore benthic areas. Some
are reported to occasionally enter open marine waters. Individuals
less than 5 years of age use primarily estuarine habitats for most
of the year (Wilk and Silverman 1976). Adults generally utilize
separate summer and wintering areas, though greatest abundance occurs
in estuaries. Due to damming operations in the Connecticut River,
as well as in rivers of Maine and South Carolina, several populations
of shortnose sturgeon are reported to be restricted to freshwater
Critical habitat areas in river systems in
the southern United States are those at the saltwater/freshwater
interface (Flournoy et al. 1992, Rogers and Weber 1995). Access
to upstream areas of rivers unimpeded by dams is also considered
critical (USFWS 1998).
Foraging habitat includes vegetated backwaters,
and shallow river banks where water is less than 2m (6.6 feet) deep
(Dadswell et al 1984). In late summer, when water temperatures are
elevated, feeding occurs in deeper areas.
Most activity of larvae, juveniles, and adults appears to occur
at night (Dadswell et al. 1984; Richmond and Kynard 1995), though
shortnose sturgeon are also reported to be active during daylight
hours when waters are highly turbid (Dadswell et al 1984).
Seasonally, shortnose sturgeon tend not to
forage or feed when water temperatures drop below 10 °C (Dadswell
1979; Dadswell et al. 1984).
VI. SPECIAL STATUS
The International Union for the Conservation
of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which maintains the IUCN
Red List of species threatened with extinction, lists the shortnose
sturgeon as Vulnerable to extinction based on habitat loss or degradation
(infrastructure development, human settlement, dam construction);
accidental mortality (fisheries bycatch, entrainment in industrial
water intakes or dredging operations); pollution (non-point source
agricultural and urban, thermal, oil); negative impacts of invasive
species; and intrinsic factors (limited dispersal, poor recruitment,
high juvenile mortality, slow growth).
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed
the shortnose sturgeon as an Endangered species on March 11, 1967,
when it was first protected under the Endangered Species Preservation
Act, which predated the Endangered Species Act of 1973. NOAA is
the lead Federal agency responsible for the protection of endangered
The State of Florida currently lists the shortnose
sturgeon as Endangered.
Why are shortnose sturgeon endangered?:
The shortnose sturgeon never supported a targeted fishery; however,
they were captured with Atlantic sturgeon as part of a large sturgeon
fishery, harvests of which exceeded 3,000 metric tons per year until
the 1880s when overfishing, industrial development, and damming
of rivers began to negatively impact stocks. Catches declined through
the early 1900s, until only incidental landings were reported from
1900 1950 (Dadswell et al. 1984; NMFS 1998).
As there is no longer a commercial or recreational
fishery for shortnose sturgeon, principal threats primarily involve
irreversible loss and degradation of habitat. Direct mortality is
also known to occur from pollution, entrainment in cooling water
intakes, dredging operations, and incidental capture in other fisheries
The IUCN Red List estimates greater than 30% reductions in some
populations over 3 generations. Further, there are large disparities
in population numbers between river systems. In several large northern
river systems, shortnose sturgeon stocks are apparently stable or
increasing, but populations in southern rivers remain severely depleted.
For example, estimated total population size for the Hudson River
(95% confidence interval) is 26,000 55,000 individuals. The Saint
John (New Brunswick, Canada), Kennebec (Maine), and Delaware populations
of shortnose sturgeon are estimated to range from 5,000 15,000.
The Connecticut River (Massachusetts and Connecticut) has a population
of approximately 1,200 fish; while the Merrimack River (Massachusetts)
may have fewer than 100 fish (Kieffer and Kynard 1993, Kynard 1997,
In southern river systems, only a few population
estimates have been conducted. In the Chesapeake Bay region, shortnose
sturgeon are only rarely documented, and no breeding population
is apparent. In the Ogeechee and Altamaha Rivers of Georgia, the
estimated population size of shortnose sturgeon is approximately
1,000 fish each (Rogers and Weber 1994). Five shortnose sturgeon
were collected in the St. Johns River, Florida in the late 1970's
(Dadswell et al. 1984) and, in 1981, three sturgeon were collected
and released by the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.
Interestingly, none of the collections were recorded from the estuarine
portion of the system; all captures occurred far upstream in an
area heavily influenced by artesian springs with high mineral content.
The USFWS (1998) has identified 19 somewhat
genetically distinct population segments of shortnose sturgeon occurring
from New Brunswick, Canada to Florida. Though estimates of genetic
variation within and among these shortnose sturgeon populations
are not available, life history studies indicate that populations
from different river systems are likely to be reproductively isolated
(Kynard 1997) and, therefore, should be considered separately. A
status review of the shortnose sturgeon population conducted in
1987 recommended managing each of the 19 subpopulations as distinct
entities. It was further advised that stocks in the Connecticut,
Delaware, and Hudson River populations could be downlisted to Threatened
status; while the Kennebec River population could potentially be
delisted entirely (USFWS 1998).
Management Priorities and Recovery
Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, populations may be considered
for downlisting to Threatened status when they reach a minimum population
size large enough to prevent extinction and prevent loss of genetic
diversity. The USFWS (1998) Recovery Plan for shortnose sturgeon
calls for identification and designation of critical habitat areas;
protection of sturgeon from point source and non-point source pollution,
as well as other anthropogenic effects. It sets forth the long term
goal of eventually delisting the shortnose sturgeon through continued
habitat and water quality assessment; protection of spawning sites,
and restricting damming and dredging efforts at least during migratory
or spawning periods. Monitoring and minimization of mortality through
reduction of bycatch, protection from invasive species, strengthening
and increased enforcement of anti-poaching regulations, and increased
pubic education efforts all will be directed toward recovery efforts
Acipenser brevirostrum, along with other sturgeon species
that occur along the Atlantic Seaboard, have good quality flesh
and eggs suitable for use as caviar. They were intensively fished
for more than 100 years until the fishery collapsed in the 1880s.
Subsequent industrial development along rivers and coastlines impeded
recovery of populations by impairing water quality and degrading
habitats (NMFS 1998). Industrialization may have been especially
harmful to southernmost populations, including those in Florida
(Scott 1978). Currently, there are no legal fisheries or by-catch
allowances for shortnose sturgeon in U.S. territorial waters. This
species has been listed as Endangered since 1967.
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