by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Caviar, salted sturgeon eggs, is a delicacy most often associated with Russia … the “treat of tsars.” New Jerseyans may be surprised, then, to learn that this state we’re in was once world-famous for its own caviar.
In the late 1800s, the Delaware Bay and Delaware River were one of the planet’s most productive sturgeon fisheries, helping make the United States the world’s top caviar exporter.
The Delaware Bay even had its own sturgeon boomtown at the mouth of the Stow Creek in Cumberland County, known as Caviar Point or sometimes simply Caviar.
Caviar had a processing plant and its own railroad spur for sending the delicacy north through the Pine Barrens to New York City. At its peak around 1895, nearly two dozen wholesalers shipped 15 train cars of caviar and smoked sturgeon every day.
Atlantic sturgeon were huge and plentiful. Gigantic females were slaughtered to extract the eggs. But demand for caviar exceeded the Delaware Bay’s supply of the slow-maturing Atlantic sturgeon. The caviar business eventually crashed in the early 1900s due to overfishing; newspaper stories from the time indicate that Caviar residents thought they were being punished by God. Without its namesake business, Caviar became known as Bayside.
But Atlantic sturgeon weren’t wiped out completely. Researchers estimate that today about 300 to 500 adult females spawn in the Delaware. While that’s only a tiny fraction of the estimated 180,000 breeding sturgeon believed to be in the bay prior to 1890, scientists are hoping these bony, prehistoric-looking fish will rebound.
Atlantic sturgeon were placed on the federal endangered species list this spring and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is now tracking migration patterns with the hope of eventually restoring the population.
Researchers are netting sturgeon and implanting them with acoustic telemetry tags, and the Division is placing 18 acoustic receivers on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay to track their movements. Fishermen in the bay may notice the receivers; they’re attached to white buoys marked “NJDEP Research.”
Understanding their movement in the bay is important because Atlantic sturgeon is considered an “anadromous” species. This means the fish spend most of their time in marine waters and estuaries, then migrate into fresh water to spawn. Adults can grow up to 14 feet long, weigh up to 800 pounds and live to around 100 years.
New Jersey will probably never again be famous for caviar, but it would be wonderful if Atlantic sturgeon became famous for making a comeback! Other endangered and threatened species have returned from the brink – think bald eagles and striped bass – and hopefully the Atlantic sturgeon will someday join them as a New Jersey success story.
For more information about Atlantic sturgeon and the new tracking project, go to www.njfishandwildlife.com/news/2012/sturgeon_research.htm or http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2012/01/31_atlantic_sturgeon.html.
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