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Once Endangered Sturgeon Rebounding in Hudson River, St

Mason Inman
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2007
 
"If I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere."

This famous tune from the film New York, New York might be what shortnose sturgeon would belt out if they could sing.

That's because the endangered fish have made a surprise recovery in the Hudson River under the shadows of Manhattan's skyscrapers, a new study shows.

The sturgeon has been so successful that it could join the handful of species that have been removed from the U.S. endangered species list—becoming the first fish to do so.

"We don't need to necessarily have parks and pristine landscapes to recover species," said biologist and study leader Mark Bain of Cornell University.

"We can do it in the midst of people sometimes."

More than 60,000 shortnose sturgeon now swim in the Hudson River, Bain and colleagues report in last week's issue of the open-access journal PLoS One.

This is about four times as many fish as could be found in the river in the 1970s, the last time researchers did a survey of the species.

Slow Recovery

The shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) has been on the endangered species list since the Endangered Species Preservation Act was passed in 1966.

The fish's numbers had likely been declining for more than a hundred years before that.

The sturgeon used to be fished heavily to make a popular smoked meat known as Albany beef, named for the fish's upstream spawning site near the state capital of Albany (see a map of New York).

Its numbers had also been hurt by cities dumping raw sewage into rivers, which made oxygen levels in the water drop.

"By the 1900s it was rare to see shortnose sturgeon," Bain said, and by the 1950s "they had declined to such low levels they were barely ever seen."

The fish's recovery seems to be due to its protection as an endangered species as well as modern sewage treatment required under the 1977 Clean Water Act, Bain says.

Sturgeon are long-lived—they can live as long as people—and reproduce slowly, so their recovery took decades.

The lesson of this study, Bain said, is that "we're likely to need a lot of time and patience" in helping endangered species.

Ray of Hope

Most species on the endangered list are removed either because they go extinct or by a technicality: getting reclassified as another nonendangered species.

But a few species have recovered enough to make it off the list, such as peregrine falcons and the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves.

(Related news: "Wolves to Be Hunted if Removed From U.S. Endangered List" [February 5, 2007].)

"It can be difficult to ask people to make space for a species when they do not see the immediate payoffs" of conservation efforts, said David Lusseau, an ecologist at Dalhousie University in Canada.

But this new study "provides a ray of hope in the gloom of endangered wildlife management," Lusseau said.

"It offers us a great lesson: Long-term investment in species recovery can pay off."

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