A friend of mine who works for Riverkeeper grew up on the Hudson River, where he heard tales from the grizzled old fishermen about the massive, dinosaur-like fish known as sturgeon, which used to ply American waters in great numbers. My friend is so enamored with the fish that he jokingly told friends he wanted to name his first child Sturgeon.
My friend settled on Ben for the birth certificate, but Sturgeon could make a fine nickname for an athletic young man, since the fish are powerful swimmers that can leap high into the air.
The Atlantic sturgeon can weigh as much as 800 pounds, and it is little changed since the prehistoric-looking fish emerged before the time of T-Rex.
Except its numbers have declined precipitously, thanks to over fishing, dams, and pollution. Earlier this year, the federal government listed Atlantic sturgeon as endangered in five locations and threatened in the Gulf of Maine.
An Atlantic sturgeon hasn’t been seen in the Charles River in Boston for as long as anyone can remember. But a juvenile (still a big fish) was recently spotted, and recorded with a cellphone camera, by a strolling Bostonian.
In a testament to the decimated state of New England rivers, even experienced anglers couldn’t identify the man’s photo. Scientists could, and they rejoiced in seeing the return of at least one fish to a once fertile river.
It is a welcome reminder that recent anti-pollution efforts have been having an impact on the Charles, a river perhaps best known as the site of many Ivy League boat races. Sturgeon are often thought of as indicator species; where they thrive, it’s a good sign the river is healthy.
There are 26 species of sturgeon in the world, cruising backwaters in Eurasia and North America. Some of these bottom feeders live only in freshwater, while others venture into coastal waters to feed. They all have elongated bodies and lack scales, though they are bony inside.
Sturgeon have been around for an estimated 200 million years, but if we don’t take good care of our rivers, they might not be around when Ben (aka Sturgeon) is a grown man.
Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.