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The Atlantic sturgeon has been around for 70 million years — predating the dinosaurs. These monumental fish with shark-like fins even survived the Chicxulub asteroid, which caused the great extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period.
But the species has become endangered, threatened by habitat loss, dams, poor water quality and vessel strikes. In the Delaware River, there are only about 200 estimated sturgeon left.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, WHYY’s Maiken Scott and The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will host an event on Thursday evening to discuss the landmark law.
The discussion, which takes place at the Academy, will highlight the importance of researching and protecting the sturgeon and other vulnerable species.
“I think that sturgeons and these other endangered species are a reflection of our environment. And, if we want to have a healthy lifestyle, if we want to live on a healthy planet, we need to maintain those species,” said Dewayne Fox, a fisheries professor at Delaware State University, who will speak at the event.
“And, if something that has been around for in excess of 70 million years is threatened with extinction within a century and a half, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the problem?’”
The 14-foot-long fish was found in as many as 38 rivers throughout eastern North America for millions of years, including in the Delaware River.
However, their numbers diminished drastically following the caviar rush in the late 1800s. At one time, the Delaware River was the largest producer of sturgeon in the world and supplied the global demand for the delicacy.
The species, which can weigh up to 800 pounds, have since been impacted by poor water quality and vessel strikes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed federal standards to determine the levels of oxygen fish need in order to flourish along 38 miles of the Delaware River.
The Academy is a research museum containing about 20 million specimens dating as far back as 200 years. The fish collection includes various preserved sturgeon species from as early as 1818.
The specimens help researchers better understand biodiversity, ecosystems and the evolution of species, said Mariangeles Arce, executive director for the Center for Systematic Biology and Evolution at the Academy.
“We know when and where they were collected, so they allow us to make inferences about the environment and understand what was happening in a particular time and place,” said Arce, one of the event’s speakers.
“So, we’re looking at what they eat, when they reproduce. But also, you could look a little more in depth about the shape of the bones and the anatomy [to] give you more clues into how they have evolved and changed for millions of years.”
She said she hopes the general public attending Thursday’s event will gain greater interest and awareness about endangered species.
“Learning what species are endangered or threatened will allow us to know things like what not to eat, what not to fish for, even if it’s just recreational,” Arce said. “But in a broader sense, just knowing what species have some sort of threat will just create that awareness of how to protect them and how our actions can impact their likelihood to survive.”
The event is called Long Live Sturgeon! (And Other Amazing Fish of the Delaware River Basin) Thursday, February 15, 2024, from 6:00 PM-8:00 PM at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103. Register for the pay-what-you-wish event.
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