- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

AQUASCO, Md. - Three wader-clad men climbed across a low, mesh-like fence atop a gigantic tank and gingerly stepped inside. Within seconds they were involved in an unintentional melee as they tried to tail grab, bear hug or otherwise capture wildly objecting sturgeons that simply didn’t care to pose for a picture.

Yes, sturgeons.

They appear to wear armor plating, these descendants of prehistoric creatures, and, yes, they’re by far the favorites among the men who tenderly care for them in special aerated rearing tanks at Mirant’s Chalk Point Generating Plant (it used to belong to Pepco) on the shores of the Patuxent River in southern Prince George’s County.

The way the sturgeons’ chief overseer, environmental specialist Timothy W. Klares, looks at it, raising fish that eventually will restore a nearly endangered species is good for everybody.

Power plants occasionally are criticized because fish get sucked into the intakes when they draw water from a river or lake to cool machinery or supply steam to produce electricity despite a series of blocking nets and screens. It doesn’t make for favorable publicity when word gets out regarding such unfortunate occurrences.

However, the Mirant power people want to show that they’re good neighbors. If fish — usually small specimens that can slip through fine mesh — have to pay the ultimate price, they are ready to replenish certain species through a series of expensive aquaculture operations.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” Klares said. “We raise sturgeons and shad and have helped the Coastal Conservation Association with a yellow perch restoration project that will benefit all. Thanks to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the federal government, both of which are deeply involved in the sturgeon program, we are delighted to help provide a home for these hardy fish.”

Imagine that. Sturgeons that used to roam every river in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, especially the Potomac, might one day reclaim their former glory.

Best of all, they won’t displace or threaten established local species. Sturgeons are anadromous fish that enter local streams and estuaries to spawn. Under normal circumstances they feed mostly at sea, where they scour the bottom for crustaceans, mollusks and small baitfish.

The ambitious sturgeon program is a wonderful example of how state and federal governments can partner with private industry to work a little magic.

Said Klares: “The Maryland DNR and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are doing all they can to make the reintroduction of sturgeon a huge success. Without these two government agencies, this wouldn’t be happening.”

In the case of Maryland, Brian Richardson, the program manager for DNR hatcheries, is the man to talk to learn about sturgeon.

From his Stevensville office, Richardson said, “These sturgeon are primarily Hudson River stock. We hope to keep them at the Mirant facility until they mature fully, which happens when they’re about 15 years old. Several at Chalk Point are getting close, what with being 12 years old. We’re going to try to develop a genetically diverse brood stock that one day will find a home in the Chesapeake’s tributaries. A few target tributaries will be chosen— the Potomac will be one of them — and the sturgeons will be put into those waters.”

What is needed first, however, is successful breeding under the watchful eyes of Klares, Richardson and the federal government’s Steve Minkkinen, who, like Richardson, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to sturgeons and their needs.

While the fish is not an endangered species — yet — the only viable population on the East Coast is in the Hudson River. There are a few in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as Virginia’s James and York rivers, but the numbers are sparse.

When the time comes for the sturgeon at the power plant to reach maturity, Richardson says the females will be implanted with a hormone that induces the spawning urge. Then, unlike other fish with a female’s roe, or the male’s milt, that can be stripped simply by squeezing and “milking” their bellies, the sturgeon will have to be surgically opened. An incision is made to remove the roe (yes, it’s caviar) and the male’s reproductive fluids. In the wild, sturgeons spawn naturally at greatly differing times of the year.

“They’re far too primitive a creature to let us strip roe from them as is done with stripers and shad, for example,” Richardson said.

In confinement, such as the power plant’s rearing tanks, the sturgeons of course need help, and Klares, Richardson and Minkkinen are more than happy to provide it along with an impressive support group that also includes the University of Maryland’s Horn Point facility on the Eastern Shore. Horn Point conducts feeding and nutritional trials for the program and is training wild-caught brood fish to feed on a commercial pelletized diet.

Other organizations that are interested in the sturgeon program include the District’s Fisheries Department, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the state of Delaware.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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