- Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
- MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program
Media Contact for Species Spotlight: Shortnose sturgeon
Marion Larson, MassWildlife
The year 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA)! To celebrate, MassWildlife will be highlighting one rare species each month as a Species Spotlight. Through the implementation of MESA, MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program conserves and protects the most vulnerable animals and plants of Massachusetts and the habitats upon which they depend. Stay up to date on how MassWildlife is celebrating this important milestone by visiting mass.gov/30MESA
Common name: Shortnose sturgeon
Scientific name: Acipenser brevirostrum
Size: Less than 40 inches
Range: Shortnose sturgeon are found in major rivers along the East Coast of North America from Florida to New Brunswick, Canada. In Massachusetts, shortnose sturgeon are currently found in the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers with historical occurrences in many coastal rivers around Massachusetts.
MA Conservation status: Endangered
Federal conservation status: Endangered
Although shortnose sturgeon are one of the largest fish species in Massachusetts inland waters, it is the smallest species of sturgeon in Massachusetts and one of smallest in the sturgeon family (Acipenseridae).
Shortnose sturgeon vary in color from yellow-brown to black-olive on the dorsal surface and have a white belly. They lack scales, but have 5 rows of bony plates called scutes. The four barbels (fleshy whisker-like projections) that hang from their snout help shortnose sturgeon find invertebrates in the sediment.
Shortnose sturgeon spawn in large freshwater rivers. They migrate from the mouths of rivers, traveling 10s to 100s of miles to reach suitable spawning upstream. During non-spawning periods sturgeon often leave freshwater in pursuit of food resources in estuaries or along the coast and migrate between large river systems.
The migration of the shortnose sturgeon population in the Connecticut River is restricted by hydroelectric dams making this population one of the few that lives only in freshwater.
Shortnose sturgeon are relatively long-lived fish species. They can live up to 60 years, and do not reach reproductive maturity until they are 10–12 years old.
Threats and conservation
The major threats to this species are river habitat degradation and loss caused by dams, channel dredging, poor water quality, contaminants, fisheries bycatch, and incidental boating strikes.
Hydroelectric dams can be harmful in a number of ways. Dams can alter water flow and sediment patterns impacting spawning success, fragment populations by limiting fish movement, and cause mortality if fish swim too near intake pipes and pass through turbines. Efforts to restore sturgeon migration and reconnect subpopulations are underway in the Connecticut River through the construction of fishways to aid upstream and downstream movement.
Due to its long life and late maturity, populations are likely slow to recover making shortnose sturgeon one of the most vulnerable freshwater fish species in Massachusetts.
How you can help
Both shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon are endangered species and sightings should be reported to MassWildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) here.
It is illegal to possess shortnose sturgeon. If you accidentally catch a sturgeon while fishing, release it as gently and quickly as possible, even if you need to cut the line. Never take the fish out of the water.
MassWildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP) is responsible for the conservation and protection of over 400 rare animals and plants, including shortnose sturgeon. NHESP's work is primarily funded through grants and donations from supportive citizens. Donate to NHESP today at mass.gov/support-nhesp.
Image credit: Micah Kieffer at USGS