Atlantic Sturgeon Once Swam By The Thousands, But Is Now Endangered And Is Down To Hundreds

OCEAN COUNTY, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — What’s got scales, a fin, and looks like a Komodo dragon but lives in the sea?

Meet the Atlantic sturgeon.

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A type of fish dating back to prehistoric times, the Atlantic sturgeon was once so plentiful its eggs fueled a thriving industry, CBS2’s Meg Baker reported Monday.

Stephanie Hall was out for a jog in Island Beach State Park a week ago when she spotted the giant fish carcass.

Hall said when she reached her turn around the point she came up near the dunes to avoid a seal close to the water, and that’s when she came face-to-face with the unknown creature.

An Atlantic sturgeon was found washed ashore in New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park on May 4, 2018. (credit: New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection)

“I came head-on with it at first. It looked like huge lizard head,” she said. “I froze in my tracks, because I was not expecting something that big or that strange looking.”

“When they say prehistoric, it certainly looks like it’s something out of the deep,” said fellow beach goer David Transue.

A sturgeon is indeed a prehistoric species, appearing in the fossil record more than 200 million years ago.

Island Beach State Park officer Louis Derflinger reported to the scene and said a lot of things wash up there, but this find is a first for him.

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“It was about 5 feet long,” said Derflinger. “At first, thought it was shark, but then I realized it didn’t have top fin, it only had the back, and it had some scales going across the top and on the side, which were hard. Almost like an armor plating.”

A century ago there was a huge fishery for sturgeon along the Delaware River revolving around harvesting of the eggs for caviar.

The population declined drastically, and since 1998 there has been a moratorium on harvesting Atlantic sturgeon.

The fish found last week is not the sturgeon someone would buy in a gourmet food shop.

“Apparently it was a big thing, and that’s when I looked up what a sturgeon was. I would have never known that those fish existed or were around here, endangered,” Hall said.

New Jersey Fish and Wildlife tags sturgeon and usually detect 200 or so as they swim back into the rivers to spawn, but 100 years ago, there were more than 100,000 swimming here.

Sturgeon in the Delaware Bay area produced so many eggs that the region was considered the caviar capital of the America, even to the point that a town on the bay was named “Caviar.”

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About three years ago, environmentalists objected to the Tappan Zee Bridge project as a threat to the sturgeon, while the Peekskill Brewery named a beer after the fish and pledged profits from its sale would go to help clean the sturgeon’s natural habitats.