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 grows 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: one row is set mid-dorsally, two are set laterally and two are set dorsolaterally. 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 oxyrinchus) 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).
Potentially Misidentified Species: 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 1989).
Regional Occurrence: 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). The species is significantly more common in northern portions of its range than in the south.
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).
Abundance: 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 from 1985-1992 (NMFS 1998; Collins et al. 2002).
Acipenser 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 of 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 pre-spawning 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.
Embryology: 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 17.8°C, 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 increase 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); barbels 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 three 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 three 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.
Temperature: 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 (82.4°F).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).
Salinity: 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), as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (Cooper 1989; Sindermann 1994; NMFS 1998).
Dissolved oxygen: Jenkins et al. (1993) reported 90% mortality in laboratory populations of shortnose sturgeon larvae when dissolved oxygen concentrations were below 2.5 mg/L. However, fishes older than 100 days were able to tolerate the same levels of dissolved oxygen with less than 20% mortality.
Acipenser brevirostrum is primarily a benthic feeder, though some observations report it selecting snails from the leaves of freshwater or estuarine plants.
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) 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 four 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.
Competitors: 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 sturgeon's non-specific feeding habits.
Predators: Acipenser brevirostrum is not the main prey item of any known species (USFWS 1998).
Parasites: Dadswell et al. (1984) reported Acipenser brevirostrum is sometimes parasitized by sea lampreys, coelenterates, nematodes, leeches, arthropods, and flatworms. Infestation intensity was reportedly low.
Habitats: 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 five 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 (USFWS 1998).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 riverbanks where water is less than 2m deep (Dadswell et al 1984). In late summer, when water temperatures are elevated, feeding occurs in deeper areas.
Activity Time: 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).
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, 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 Endangered on March 11, 1967, when it was first protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, which predated the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the lead federal agency responsible for the protection of endangered marine life.The State of Florida currently lists the shortnose sturgeon as Endangered.
Population Estimates: The IUCN Red List estimates greater than 30% reductions in some populations over three 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. By contrast, the Saint John (New Brunswick, Canada), Kennebec (Maine), and Delaware river 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, Savoy 2004).
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 Strategy: 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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan (1998) 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.
The recovery plan sets the long-term goal of eventually de-listing 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. Additional recovery efforts include monitoring and minimization of mortality through reduction of bycatch, protection from invasive species, strengthening and increased enforcement of anti-poaching regulations, and increased public education efforts (USFWS 1998).
Fisheries Importance: Shortnose sturgeon (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 southerly 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 federally endangered since 1967.
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