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Atlantic Sturgeon

Fact File

Scientific Name: Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus

Classification: Fish, Order Acipenseriformes, Family Acipenseridae

Conservation Status:

  • Federally Endangered in the U.S.
  • State Endangered in Virginia
  • SGCN Tier Ib: The Virginia 2015 Wildlife Action Plan lists Atlantic Sturgeon as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in Tier I, with a conservation opportunity ranking of "b"

Size: Can grow up to 10 feet and 400 pounds

Life Span: 60+ years

Identifying Characteristics

  • Robust body profile with a relatively long, flattened snout
  • Five rows of bony plates (scutes) along the top and sides of the body
  • Falcate shaped caudal (tail) fin; heterocercal
  • A row of whiskers between the mouth and snout


Atlantic Sturgeon are opportunistic benthic feeders, often consuming worms, crustaceans, and macroinvertebrates


Atlantic Sturgeon are present in all of Virginia’s major rivers draining into the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Distribution of Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) in Virginia.


Atlantic Sturgeon are an anadromous species, meaning they spend the majority of their life in the ocean and only migrate up Virginia’s freshwater rivers to carry out their reproductive lifecycle. Two distinct spawning migrations have been documented in Virginia, with fish ascending Chesapeake Bay tributaries in either the Spring or Fall. During this migration, Atlantic Sturgeon seek out clean, solid substrates in which to deposit adhesive eggs.

Threats to Atlantic Sturgeon in Virginia

Historical Overharvest and Habitat Loss

Before European colonization, Atlantic sturgeon populations were much more robust than they are now. The caviar fishery of the 19th century reduced populations of this long-lived species to a fraction of their former abundance, and since spawning females were targeted, that left few individuals to replenish the stocks. Sturgeon don’t reach maturity to reproduce until they are ten years or older, so in a short time, Atlantic sturgeon were on the brink of collapse. During this time, forests were being cleared and the Industrial Revolution introduced massive amounts of pollution to the Commonwealth’s air and waters. Sturgeon require clean, flowing water over solid substrate to spawn and the siltation resulting from landing clearing renders spawning habitat unusable. Many rivers were dammed and altered to facilitate shipping goods and to power mills with little thought to the impacts this has on migrating fish returning to their historical spawning habitat. Atlantic sturgeon were thought to be extirpated from many of Virginia’s tidal rivers due to overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution.

Recognizing that an intervention was needed, Virginia banned fishing for sturgeon in 1974 after decades of declining catches. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission formalized a Fishery Management Plan for sturgeon in 1990 that provided benchmarks for rebuilding the populations. Along with directed efforts to protect sturgeon, we realized the need to reduce pollution and restore habitats for wildlife. The Clean Water Act of 1972 helped restore water quality nationwide. Taking this a step further, the Commonwealth enacted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act of 1988 to protect and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay through effective land use management practices. The final act for Atlantic Sturgeon was their listing as Federally Endangered in 2012, which provides stringent protections for their populations and habitats.


Ship-Strike Related Mortality

One ongoing threat that concerns Atlantic Sturgeon researchers is the number of ship-strike mortalities observed within Virginia waters. Researchers are currently investigating the frequency of these encounters by collecting data from prop-strike mortality instances.

Researchers release an Atlantic Sturgeon

Dr. Matt Balazik, a research scientist for the Army Corps. of Engineers, and his crew release an adult Atlantic Sturgeon after collecting biological information. Dr. Balazik bases his operations out of the VCU Rice Rivers Center on the James River, and specializes in assessing Atlantic Sturgeon population dynamics and movement within the large tidal systems of the east coast.

Much of the success of this dataset can be attributed to the help of the general public, who aids researchers in locating these incidents by reporting Atlantic Sturgeon carcasses when they come upon one.

An image of an dead Atlantic Sturgeon that was heavily injured

The result of prop-strike on an Atlantic Sturgeon. ©Matt Balazik

If you come across a carcass or a stranded or injured Atlantic Sturgeon carcass, please report the encounter to one of the following Atlantic Sturgeon Salvage Partners:


Virginia Commonwealth University / U.S. Army Corps

Matthew Balazik (804)827-0236


Chesapeake Scientific

Christian Hager (804)824-4530

A floating Atlantic Sturgeon carcass

A large Atlantic Sturgeon carcass

Special Considerations

It is illegal to target Atlantic Sturgeon by angling. The Atlantic Sturgeon is listed as an endangered species under federal and Virginia law. It is a violation of state and federal law to harass, harm, or take any Atlantic Sturgeon.

For the definitions of take, harass, and harm, see 4 VAC 15-20-140.


Explore other stories and learn how the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources aids in the protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species in Virginia by visiting the Endangered Species Act Webpage!


Last updated: May 14, 2024

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Species Profile Database serves as a repository of information for Virginia’s fish and wildlife species. The database is managed and curated by the Wildlife Information and Environmental Services (WIES) program. Species profile data, distribution information, and photography is generated by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, State and Federal agencies, Collection Permittees, and other trusted partners. This product is not suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying use. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources does not accept responsibility for any missing data, inaccuracies, or other errors which may exist. In accordance with the terms of service for this product, you agree to this disclaimer.