They Outlasted the Dinosaurs. Can They Survive Us?

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The American caviarrush began on the lower Delaware estuary, a landscape today crowded with chemical plants, container ports and the sprawl of Philadelphia. But this was the 1870s, when nature edged up to the city’s limits, when probably nowhere else in the country was home to more Atlantic sturgeon: During the spring spawn, an estimated 360,000 adults thronged the reach that marked the brackish threshold between bay and river. Theirs was the roe prized by the Russian czars, whose brokers at one point paid more than $1,400 in today’s dollars for a single female Atlantic sturgeon. Bayside, N.J., came to be known as Caviar, a miniature, pop-up New Bedford in the state’s marshy south. During the fishery’s peak, in 1888, 16,500 Atlantic sturgeon — they can live 60 years and grow to 14 feet and 800 pounds — were “harvested,” or killed. Most were female, and the millions of eggs that each could produce during a spawn never made it into the water within which they were meant to hatch.

For an estimated 10 to 15 million years, Atlantic sturgeon, or Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus, have spawned in as many as 38 rivers throughout eastern North America. An anadromous fish, it is born in fresh water, spends its adulthood in salt water and returns to its natal rivers to spawn. Because individuals from different rivers do not commonly interbreed, their homing instinct has produced populations whose genetics are unique to the waterways of their birth. But the caviar rush of the late 19th century ravaged the Atlantic sturgeon, and today breeding populations remain in only 22 of its 38 natal rivers. In 2012, the species became protected under the Endangered Species Act.

At the time, researchers estimated that the Delaware population consisted of 300 or fewer spawning adults per year. While the Delaware Atlantic sturgeon is just one branch of the species, its decline epitomizes the global biodiversity crisis. “If you lose one population and their functional genetic diversity, then you’re possibly eliminating the ability for the species to adapt to new conditions in the future,” says Isaac Wirgin, an associate professor of environmental medicine at N.Y.U. Langone Health, who has sequenced Atlantic sturgeon DNA. In other words, when one branch is extirpated, a block from the genetic Jenga tower is removed and the whole family teeters further.

Few families of plants or animals have survived more geological upheaval than the Acipenseridae. Sixty-six million years ago, when the Chicxulub asteroid hit what is today known as the Yucatán, Acipenseriformes swam the warm sea that bisected North America. Except for some variations in skeletal structure, these fish would have been strikingly similar to the 27 individual Acipenseridae species still extant: five rows of bony “scutes” along the length of their bodies, a vacuum-tube mouth, small feline eyes, long mustache of barbels. “They are without a doubt sturgeon,” says Eric Hilton, an ichthyologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has studied Acipenseriforme fossils found in North Dakota. The asteroid was the beginning of the end for about 70 percent of life on Earth — the Cretaceous period’s dramatic finale — but it did not wipe out the sturgeon. Last year, however, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature noted that sturgeon are “the animal group most at risk of extinction in the world.” That humanity has reduced this ancient and enduring fish to such a fragile state speaks to the force of the latest impact event to remake the Earth — our own presence.

This was the macabre thought that often occurred to Dewayne Fox, a fisheries biologist at Delaware State University, over the summer of 2017, as he prepared to start a novel study of Atlantic sturgeon for which he and two colleagues had just received a $214,730 grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service (N.M.F.S.). In the heavily industrialized areas of the Delaware River, ships and boats are a common cause of death among adult Atlantic sturgeon. According to the research that led to the species’ endangered listing in 2012, strikes by vessel hulls and propellers are a threat to Atlantic sturgeon across their range but responsible for half of all adult deaths in the Delaware estuary. Fox, however, having worked the river and bay for nearly a decade, suspected far more fish were being hit than existing data suggested, and he and his team had come up with a curious project to prove it.

Dewayne Fox studies the Delaware estuary’s dwindling Atlantic sturgeon population.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Fox is tall, hyperkinetic and gregarious, with a booming voice and reddish-gray goatee. He grew up in Orange County, Calif., in the 1970s and paid for his graduate studies in fisheries science at the University of Washington by working as a commercial pole-and-line tuna fisherman on weekslong trips offshore. (“I’m not a tree-hugger, much to the disdain of my wife,” he says.) After completing his dissertation on the Gulf sturgeon, a close cousin of the Atlantic sturgeon, at North Carolina State University in 2001, Fox landed at Delaware State and began studying the Delaware estuary.

The Endangered Species Act, which will mark its 50th anniversary later this year, is supposed to include the mechanism through which federally funded academic research informs the regulations meant to not only halt a species’ decline into extinction but also facilitate conservation measures that allow its numbers to rebound. While this has helped some species, especially charismatic fauna like the bald eagle or humpback whale, recovery for overlooked creatures like the Atlantic sturgeon has been harder. When Fox and his colleagues began their vessel-strike study in 2017, the Delaware estuary was busier than ever with shipping traffic, and a series of port projects on the drawing board threatened to make it even more so. And yet when N.M.F.S. cleared the way for the projects’ construction to begin several years later, Fox was shocked to find his work had been disregarded. Why give him or other Atlantic sturgeon researchers grant money, he wonders, if the government has no interest in improving the fish’s prospects for survival? If that’s not the case, Fox says, “then tell me — so I can go do something else with my life and my career.”

I grew up in southern New Jersey, along the Delaware Bay. In high school, the place to go, where the adults were least likely to catch you drinking beer or smoking pot, was a bird-watching platform at the watery edge of a wide, flat collar of Spartina marshland. None of my friends nor I had a clue why a road had been built across such a wet patch of earth in the first place. The remains of oak structures protruding from the banks of a nearby creek and the cluster of gaunt pilings rising from the water were from an era that wasn’t ours.

That teenage hideaway was what was left of Caviar, the sturgeon boomtown. Those rotting pilings had held up dormitories, packing houses, a restaurant, a post office. Caviar had been the hub of an industry that attracted today’s equivalent of $33 million in capital investments over a couple of decades; every day, a rail line carried 15 carloads of 135-pound kegs packed with “black gold” from Caviar’s docks to New York, where much of it was shipped to Europe. In 1900, a barrel of crude sold for $1.19, a keg of caviar for $100. It was a wildly unsustainable trade, of course. In 1870, fishermen were hauling an average of 65 sturgeon from every seine. By 1899, the average was down to eight. A decade later, an article in The Times quoted a figure lamenting that “the total extinction of the sturgeon is inevitable unless the fishing shall cease for a period of years.”

Not long after Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in December 1973, the National Marine Fisheries Service began assessing the health of the Atlantic sturgeon. (Two federal agencies manage endangered species: N.M.F.S. oversees marine species, while the Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater plants and animals.) But it wasn’t until 2007 that N.M.F.S. undertook the “status review” of the Atlantic sturgeon that led to its endangered listing. By the late 2000s, says Maya van Rossum, who heads the environmental advocacy group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, “We actually thought we had lost our population.”

In 1900, a barrel of crude sold for $1.19, a keg of sturgeon caviar for $100.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

That assumption changed in the fall of 2009, when biologists happened to find nearly 60 juvenile, genetically unique Atlantic sturgeon in the heart of a 30-mile stretch of the river between Philadelphia and Wilmington that comprises the largest freshwater port complex in the world. Some 90 million tons of cargo, including bananas, lumber and petroleum, pass through its waters annually.

In 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers began deepening the shipping channel along its 102.5-mile passage through the river and bay. Like vessel strikes, dredging is known to be especially harmful for Atlantic sturgeon: Their eggs need to attach to rocky riverbed in order to hatch; to forage, the fish need muddy bottom, where their primary food sources — crustaceans, worms, mollusks and other tiny benthic fish — live. The discovery of the juvenile specimens was proof that Delaware Atlantic sturgeon were still reproducing. By sampling their DNA, and that of others in the following years, researchers were able to more accurately estimate the adult population’s size — instead of 300 sturgeon spawning per year, there were between 125 and 250.

No one had designed a study focused specifically on vessel strikes in the Delaware estuary. Given the reduced number of spawning adults, such a project seemed essential to meeting the Endangered Species Act’s mandate to improve a species’ survivability. The only existing data came from Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, which had been taking reports of sightings of Atlantic sturgeon carcasses since 2005. That information indicated that half of these adult carcasses exhibited wounds from vessel strikes.

Over beer and pizza one evening around 2010, Fox and John Sweka, a fish biologist with Fish and Wildlife, began discussing the idea of placing Atlantic sturgeon carcasses around the estuary to see how many would actually be reported by the public. By applying that “reporting rate” to Delaware’s data on vessel strikes, Fox, Sweka and a third colleague, Ed Hale, a biometrician and now an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, could calculate how many additional fatalities were going unnoticed.

Carcasses of an endangered species are not come by easily, though. Fox and his team spent years gathering specimens from commercial fishermen who captured them in their nets as bycatch; from a failed aquaculture program at West Virginia University; from Fish and Wildlife, which had raised a dozen to adulthood and then euthanized them as part of its research into breeding the fish. To get the latter, Fox drove one of his university’s pickup trucks four hours to an agency field office in central Pennsylvania, where they were being kept in a chest freezer. Halfway home, the fish, which were each about seven feet long and piled in the truck’s bed, began to thaw. “I remember seeing cars behind me with their windshield wipers on,” Fox told me recently. “It wasn’t raining.”

When the “seeding” of carcasses finally began in the spring of 2018, it immediately became clear that most of them would never generate a public report. Fox points to one glaring example why: Early one morning in the middle of summer, he placed a 4-foot, 20-pound carcass beneath a busy fishing pier in Cape Henlopen, Del. “Nobody called, nobody said anything,” Fox says. “I went back the next day, and it was still there, and people were everywhere.”

A researcher taking some tissue from a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon in order to sample its DNA.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

After two years of seeding a total of 168 carcasses, only eight were identified by the public. Combining that dismal rate with the number of nonexperimental reports received by Delaware, Fox, Sweka and Hale estimated that in 2018 and 2019 alone, 412 Atlantic sturgeon carcasses would have been present in the estuary. Not all these fish would have belonged to the Delaware population — Atlantic sturgeon of various natal rivers pass through the estuary — but most of them, Fox’s team concluded, were “likely fish of Delaware River origin.” In a population with so few adults, it signaled an alarmingly high rate of deaths.

In September 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service notified Fox that it had accepted his report; the study’s grant was complete. At the same time, the Army corps was consulting with the agency about two proposed port projects on the river. One was to be located at the Salem and Hope Creek nuclear power plants, not far from where Caviar once stood: The State of New Jersey was building the country’s first purpose-built “wind port” to service future offshore turbines up and down the East Coast. Another was to be a container terminal in Edgemoor, Del., that would handle the larger New Panamax cargo ships. Both projects would require in-water construction and dredging in areas that had been federally designated as “critical habitat” for Atlantic sturgeon.

As a result, the Army corps was directed by the Endangered Species Act to request a “formal consultation” with the National Marine Fisheries Service. That process culminates with a “biological opinion,” or BiOp, an exhaustive report that uses “the best scientific and commercial data available” to ensure that any action will “not reduce the likelihood of survival and recovery of an E.S.A.-listed species.” If the agency found that a project would threaten the continued existence of Atlantic sturgeon, it would have to hand down a “jeopardy” opinion, and construction plans would have to be either halted or modified.

In June 2021, Fox received word from an N.M.F.S. biologist writing the BiOps for the port projects who said he was considering using Fox’s study as part of the best available information on vessel strikes. But when the BiOps were released in early 2022 — neither of them jeopardy opinions — Fox learned that N.M.F.S. had instead relied on a decade-old study from the James River in Virginia. In that study, Matt Balazik, a research scientist based at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center, had dropped a handful of Atlantic sturgeon carcasses into the James and later spotted nearly a third of them washed up onto shorelines that he was already monitoring. Ultimately, N.M.F.S. determined that this same reporting rate applied to Atlantic sturgeon in the Delaware estuary — a calculation that assumed far fewer vessel strikes there than Fox’s did. Balazik told me, though, that his work did not even “fit for the whole James River, let alone a different river system,” and that Fox’s work was “definitely” a better match. “There’s no one who could deny that.”

Sturgeon have a vacuum-tube mouth, small feline eyes and a long mustache of barbels.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

It turned out that the National Marine Fisheries Service had sent Fox’s study to be reviewed by its Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which conducts its own research — a step that a N.M.F.S. spokeswoman told me is “quite common.” But Stephania Bolden, a former branch chief for N.M.F.S.’s Southeast-species conservation branch, told me that in her experience she had never known of a completed study by an established biologist like Fox being sent to her agency’s science center for another review, even if it had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Why then, I asked, did his study end up in a kind of scientific purgatory? After a pause, Bolden said, “A part of it might have been because it was a new approach to asking a question” — that is, spending two years seeding thawed fish carcasses onto public shorelines — “or it could have been because the results were very different than what we had previously known.” Whatever the reason, the science center’s review extended beyond the BiOps’ deadlines, according to the N.M.F.S. spokeswoman, which made the Balazik study “the best available information at the time the original biological opinions were developed.”

Critics of the Endangered Species Act have argued since its inception that the law has been weaponized against industry and property owners. In fact, those parties often win the battle. The law’s first test, in 1975, protected the tiny snail darter fish by delaying a hydroelectric dam project in Tennessee — but prompted Congress to amend the act to provide more latitude to projects of regional or national importance. The Reagan administration halted listings for more than a year. At the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration, Julie MacDonald, who oversaw the endangered-species program at Fish and Wildlife, resigned after an internal investigation revealed that she had, among other things, provided internal documents to industry lobbyists and pushed employees to ignore science that supported Endangered Species Act protections. Marta Nammack, who worked as a fisheries biologist at N.M.F.S. from 1992 to 2017, points to the Trump administration’s effort to get N.M.F.S. to reinterpret future climate impacts in ways that would make it easier to remove ice seals in Alaska from the endangered list. “We had received word from above, shall we say, that they wanted us to revisit those listings,” Nammack says.

A protest at Philadelphia’s City Hall in November.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

In 2015, researchers analyzed more than 88,000 consultations done by Fish and Wildlife going back to 2008 and found that not a single proposed project had been stopped or extensively modified, even when the rare jeopardy opinion was rendered. Craig Johnson says outcomes were similar at N.M.F.S., where he served as its national coordinator for interagency consultation for 15 years. “Despite what the statute says,” he told me, “the goal within both services is to always produce a no-jeopardy opinion.” Johnson joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1978 and rose through its ranks to lead the Endangered Species Division before moving to N.M.F.S. in 1998. He came under fire at F.W.S. in previous years, after handing in several BiOps that prioritized Florida’s panthers and West Indian manatees over developers. “It’s an open secret that consultations often have pretty intense political pressure to produce very specific outcomes,” Johnson says. “Agency doctrine is: If you write a jeopardy opinion, you have put your career at risk; you put the agency at risk.”

N.M.F.S. declined to make anyone available to discuss the Fox study or Johnson’s claims, but via email, the spokeswoman from the agency told me that those involved in writing BiOps are not pressured to produce “any outcome other than an outcome that uses the best available information.” BiOps, the email continued, undergo “review and clearance by legal counsel and managers.”

Last August, I joined Fox on his research boat on the Delaware Bay. At that time of year, adult Atlantic sturgeon congregate in the deep water where the bay meets the ocean. About a mile off Cape Henlopen, Fox brought the boat to an idle and tossed a hydrophone, wired to a receiver, overboard. The air was stifling and still and the water glassy and deep green, but beneath the surface the bay was loud with the vibrations of nearby container ships and recreational boats and the squeaks of echolocating dolphins. Fox and Ed Hale had recently been advisers to a Delaware State student, Alexander DiJohnson, whose master’s thesis found that Atlantic sturgeon don’t respond to the din of traffic like other fish. Such an ancient species has not evolved the wherewithal “to run away from a ship,” Hale says. “They have limited tools to essentially respond to the stimuli.”

From the underwater cacophony came seven quick blips from transponders that Fox and other researchers had attached to several Atlantic sturgeon in previous years. “That’s 57081,” Fox said, after one blip. “I can find out what fish that is.”

Ian Park, a fisheries biologist with Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

When I spoke to him months earlier, in the spring, he invited me to join him on a project, due to begin that summer, to net at least 100 adult sturgeon, take DNA samples and then equip them with acoustic transmitters that would be able to last 10 years. The survey would help provide a better understanding of not only how many sturgeon in the Delaware population remained but also where in the estuary the fish preferred to gather, especially when spawning. Fox told me I would be able to hold a huge adult in my arms and feel the power of a fish whose ancestors swam beside dinosaurs. But the grant’s approval had become stalled somewhere in the bureaucracy. For now, all we had were blips.

Fox was still indignant that the National Marine Fisheries Service had not used his study, but there was some good news. In the spring, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center had completed its review of his study, concluding it was “now considered the best available information regarding the risk of vessel strikes on sturgeon in the Delaware River and Bay,” according to the agency spokeswoman. This triggered a new round of consultations between N.M.F.S. and the Army corps and will result in updated BiOps. (The first of these opinions is due in early March.)

Still, there was grim news too. Contractors had begun dredging sections of riverbed for the wind port and would continue to do so for several months. While there were no reports of sturgeon killed during the work, the new port would mean more ship traffic for years to come.

As we stood around the telemetry receiver, a series of new blips pinged in quick succession. Some of them were from a sturgeon that Fox tagged years ago in this location; others were from one Balazik had tagged on the James. “The noise is getting louder,” Fox said. “Those fish aren’t far.”

Andrew S. Lewis covers environmental issues and is the author of “The Drowning of Money Island.” He last wrote for the magazine about the ancient art of falconry. Devin Oktar Yalkin is a Los Angeles-based photographer who has covered Joe Biden, dirt-track racing, falconry and live music for the magazine. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Time.

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