Sturgeon, The Living Fossil

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During the time I lived in Philadelphia, from 1989 through 1993, just across the Delaware River, the waterfront of Camden, New Jersey was undergoing a significant revitalization. One of the centerpieces of this effort was the New Jersey State Aquarium, which opened on February 29, 1992. The aquarium was owned and operated by the New Jersey Academy for the Aquatic Sciences and had a strong focus on education and conservation. Since they were a New Jersey institution, the displays exclusively featured fish from New Jersey, including, as we will discuss below, the Atlantic Sturgeon. I loved the aquarium but, it turns out, I was one of the very few who did.

During its first year of operation, the aquarium attracted 1.6 million visitors; most visitors were less than impressed. The fish were all brown and grey. There were no dolphin shows and no electric eels. Patrons didn’t care about the breeding habits of the slimly sculpin in the acidic waters of the Pinelands, and so they stayed home. Attendance plummeted to 400,000 in year two and, in an attempt to bring people back, the Disney-fication of the aquarium began apace. Today it is called the Adventure Aquarium and has a shark tunnel, a Kid Zone, a hammerhead shark and a 4D theater. So now it is effectively the same as every other aquarium in the country. I support any enterprise that gets people interested in science, even one that sells cotton candy next to the shark tank, but I do sort of mourn the old version.

My favorite part of the original aquarium was the tank with the Atlantic Sturgeon. If you are not familiar with it, here is a picture:


Sturgeon, in my opinion, are quite fascinating. There are 25 species of sturgeon, all of which inhabit the Northern Hemisphere, and they have been there for almost 200 million years. They swam with the dinosaurs. Their body shape and features, to me at least, evoke the feeling of being near something ancient and exotic.

Atlantic Sturgeon are an anadromous fish, which means that they live most of their lives in the ocean but, like many other fish such as shad or salmon, return to fresh water streams and/or brackish estuaries to breed. Their breeding grounds range from Florida to Maine, and include all major North Carolina rivers as well as the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound. Atlantic Sturgeon live about 60 years, can grow up to 14 feet in length, and can weigh over 800 pounds. They are bottom feeders and primarily feed on crustaceans. (To learn why this dietary choice makes the Atlantic Sturgeon vulnerable to ocean acidification, please read last week’s column, Kelp to the Rescue?).

In the late 1800’s, after lobster, sturgeon were the second most valuable seafood product on the east coast of the United States. While there was a small market for sturgeon meat, the value arose primarily from harvesting their eggs for caviar. Dare County North Carolina was known at this time as a center of commerce for sturgeon and caviar. Unfortunately, sturgeon can take up to 20 years to reach breeding age and reproduce slowly after that, so by about the year 1900 their populations had been devastated and the sturgeon industry disappeared almost as quickly as it arose.

Development in North Carolina and along the rest of the East Coast during the 1900s was not kind to the sturgeon populations that remained. The paths to their breeding grounds were blocked by dams, the gravel beds on which they deposited their eggs were covered with silt, and the concentration of dissolved oxygen, a parameter to which sturgeon are particularly sensitive, decreased due to fertilizer run-off and insufficient treatment of sewage.(1) Fishing for Atlantic Sturgeon was outlawed along the East Coast in 1992 in order to try to let the population recover, and the ban is scheduled to remain in place until 2038. A number of studies suggest that these measures are helping this “living fossil” to recover. I sure hope so, and I hope that there is still some room in the Adventure Aquarium for one of my old friends.

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1) Depletion of oxygen in waterways is a multi-step process. First, excess nitrates and phosphates are introduced into the water from fertilizer run-off from lawns and farms, as well as from the effluent of inadequate sewage treatment facilities. The phosphates and nitrates cause a dramatic increase in the amount of algae in the water. This is typically referred to as an algae bloom. Algae don’t live very long, so not long after the algae bloom there is an accumulation of dead algae on the bottom the waterbed.  Dead algae are great food for bacteria.   So when there are a lot of dead algae the bacteria population explodes. Bacteria need oxygen to exist and to eat.   Therefore, as they chew their way through the algae smorgasbord, the concentration of oxygen in the water drops, to the detriment of all other species.

North Carolina’s British Queen

Here is a North Carolina history question: Which North Carolina counties were named in honor of women?

Dare, of course, in honor of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in America.
Wake was named for Margaret Wake, wife of Governor William Tryon.
And then, Mecklenburg, named in honor of the wife of King George III, Charlotte, who grew up in the Mecklenburg region of Germany.
German Mecklenburg was part of the old East Germany. There was almost no connection between the two Mecklenburgs until the Wall came down.
Last month in Mirow, a small town in German Mecklenburg, important people from all over the world gathered to celebrate a “Queen Charlotte” connection that binds Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Perhaps the most important person there was British Ambassador to Germany Simon McDonald, who reported, “I was puzzled at first to find the place teeming with Americans; until I realised they were from Charlotte, North Carolina.  The delegation was headed by the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Mecklenburg County, and included the Deputy Mayor of Charlotte …. Charlotte, NC, was founded in 1762, the year after Charlotte became Queen.  Its symbol is still Charlotte’s crown; the Deputy Mayor proudly pointed out that a crown tops Charlotte’s tallest building, the Bank of America HQ.”
What brought all these Charlotte-connected people together? In the words of the ambassador, it was “to take part in ceremonies to mark the 250th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.”
And why was this tiny town, population about 3,500, chosen to host the event? The ambassador explained that the future queen “was born at Mirow on 19 May 1744.”
Charlotte was living in the schloss, the German word for castle or palace, in Mirow when, at age17, she departed in August, 1761 for England to marry King George.
When I first visited Princess Charlotte’s schloss in 1990, it was lovely, but in bad repair. It seemed way too small to be a real castle. But, as the ambassador explained, that was a blessing. “Its small size and intact roof saved it during the DDR [East German] time when the authorities systematically demolished princely palaces.”
After the unification of Germany, it took the heroic efforts of a group of Mirow residents and the support of wise officials of German Mecklenburg’s government to keep the schloss from being sold to private owners.
The schloss, though small, turned out to be something very special because, as the ambassador explained, its first owner, Charlotte’s grandmother, “built beautifully on a modest scale; the final touches were provided by Italian painters and sculptors …coaxed north from Berlin when Frederick the Great could not afford to pay their fees during the Seven Years War (1756-63).”
The government of German Mecklenburg, with support from the European Union, is pouring millions of euros into restoring the schloss. One special small room, by itself, will cost almost a million euros. Expected completion date: 2014.
 Speaking to his fellow British citizens, the ambassador continued, “I recommend a visit in three years to see what you’re investing in as an EU taxpayer: it promises to be spectacular.”
I agree. But don’t wait. With the lovely grounds on the small castle island, a special gatehouse with a room dedicated to a partnership with North Carolina, a hotel, a marina, restaurants, and the historic church where Charlotte was baptized, all within sight of each other, and less than two hours from Berlin, Mirow cries out for a visit by North Carolinians—right now.
For British Ambassador Simon McDonald’s complete report on the events in Mirow, see
For a video of my search for Princess Charlotte see: