Atlantic Sturgeon (Maritimes Population)

Acipenser oxyrinchus

SARA Status
No Status
NS
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

SARA Status

  • No Status NS
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
COSEWIC Status
Not at Risk
NR
Special Concern
SC
Threatened
TH
Endangered
EN
Extirpated
EX

COSEWIC Status

  • Not at Risk NR
  • Special Concern SC
  • Threatened TH
  • Endangered EN
  • Extirpated EX
Atlantic Sturgeon

Photo: Exploramer

Description

The Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) is a large-bodied and late-maturing fish with distinctive features. These include:

  • An elongated body with five rows of scutes (hard, bony projections from the skin) along the body that are high-ridged and razor sharp in younger fish and become smoother as the fish ages;
  • Brass tan in colour along the back, brown to green along the sides, and white on their underbelly;
  • A slightly upturned snout with four barbels (whisker-like protrusions) near the tip;
  • Females may reach lengths of 2 to 3 metres and 100 to 200 kg, and males may reach lengths of 1.5 to 2 metres and 50 to 100 kg;
  • Late maturing species where males mature earlier and at a smaller size than females. Size at maturity is thought to vary throughout the species' range.

Distribution/Population

Atlantic Sturgeon is an anadromous species, meaning they spawn in freshwater and spend a portion of their lives at sea. They are found along the Atlantic coast of North America from as far north as Ungava Bay, Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico. They occur in most coastal waters of Canada between Ungava Bay and the Canada-USA border.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) divided Atlantic Sturgeon occurring in Canadian waters into two populations (St. Lawrence and Maritimes) based on specific biological criteria. It has been determined that these populations are distinct from one another due to differences in their genetics, ecology, migratory behavior and life cycle.

The Maritimes population spawns in the Saint John River where 1,000 to 3,000 adults have been estimated to annually spawn in recent years. Little is known about the age at maturity and age structure of the Maritimes population. 

Habitat

Atlantic Sturgeon live in rivers, estuaries, the nearshore marine environments and the continental shelf regions along the Atlantic coast of North America. Atlantic Sturgeon spawn in relatively shallow fresh water over rocky substrate, preferring depths of one to three metres with a strong current. Juveniles may overwinter in freshwater or move into estuaries when temperatures drop in the fall. Mature Atlantic Sturgeon spend time in estuaries and smaller bays as it is thought to help in transitioning between salt and fresh water. Adults spend much of their non-breeding time at sea where they can migrate over extensive distances along the coast while feeding. The species feeds primarily on worms, crustaceans and molluscs, but also on small fish and aquatic insects.

Threats

Given its long lifespan, late maturity, and intermittent spawning, Atlantic Sturgeon is particularly susceptible to threats. In 2011, COSEWIC designated the Maritimes population of Atlantic Sturgeon as threatened citing concerns that the population is currently restricted to a single known spawning location, which makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation. They are also subject to a commercial fishery in the Saint John River.

Further Information

In the Maritimes Region, there are Aboriginal food, social and ceremonial allocations for Atlantic Sturgeon, as well as a strict quota-controlled commercial gill-net fishery and a recreational angling fishery where most anglers employ live release. There is also an Atlantic Sturgeon aquaculture and processing facility in New Brunswick, which operates using wild Atlantic Sturgeon caught via the commercial fishery. Commercially, the Atlantic Sturgeon is valued for its flesh and caviar (eggs).

Internationally, Atlantic Sturgeon are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and international trade is regulated under a permit system. They are also listed as Vulnerable with NatureServe, and Near Threatened with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In Canada, their management and habitat protection is under the authority of the Fisheries Act.

If the Maritimes population of Atlantic Sturgeon is listed under the Species at Risk Act as threatened, automatic prohibitions will immediately come into effect and it will be illegal to kill, harm, harass, capture, possess, collect, buy, sell or trade wild Atlantic Sturgeon from this population. A recovery strategy and subsequent action plan(s) will be developed to identify the measures to be implemented to mitigate the known threats. Critical habitat (the habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of Atlantic Sturgeon) will be protected once it is identified in a recovery strategy or action plan.

Visit the Species at Risk (SARA) Public Registry.

Atlantic Sturgeon (Maritimes Population)

Illustration of an Atlantic Sturgeon

Illustration: DFO, D. Peddle

Scientific name: Acipenser oxyrinchus
SARA Status: No Status
COSEWIC Status: Threatened (2011)
Taxonomy: Fish (marine)
Region: Atlantic Canada

Distribution of the two populations of Atlantic Sturgeon

Distribution of the two populations of Atlantic Sturgeon.

This map presents the distribution of the two populations (or designatable units) of Atlantic Sturgeon targeted for the consultation. It uses Mercator projection. It is a map adapted from the COSEWIC Status Report published in 2011.

The St. Lawrence Atlantic Sturgeon population is present in the St. Lawrence River, from Trois-Rivières upstream to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Outside the Gulf, the distribution extends northward along the Atlantic coast of Labrador to South Aulatsivik Island. The southern border of the distribution in the Atlantic is at Springdale, Newfoundland. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the southern border of the distribution forms a straight line between Baie-des-Chaleurs to the west and a point on the coast of Newfoundland around Corner Brook to the east.

The distribution of the Maritimes Atlantic Sturgeon population covers the entire southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The northern border of the distribution in the Gulf slightly overlaps that of the St. Lawrence Atlantic Sturgeon population. The border forms a straight line from Rivière-au-Renard to the west and a point around Corner Brook, Newfoundland to the east. The distribution of the Maritimes Atlantic Sturgeon population extends to southeast, out of the Gulf, past Cabot Strait. It follows the coast of Newfoundland, including the part of the Burin peninsula pointing towards Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. In the southwest, the distribution extends in a point to Cape Breton in the Atlantic, incorporating Sable Island, forming a thin band along Nova Scotia and covering the entire Bay of Fundy and southern New Brunswick.

Did You Know?

The Atlantic Sturgeon is the largest fresh water fish of the east coast of North America. Biologically, there is great scientific interest in its origin, which dates back at least 200 million years.

Related information