There is a fish swimming the East Coast's waterways that most folks have no idea exists.

It's not some exotic invasive species brought here by an ambitious angler. And it's certainly not some tiny specimen only viewed through a microscope.

In fact, this fish has been here longer than almost all other species and is one of the largest critters in the Delaware Bay.

Yet, the Atlantic sturgeon won't win any popularity contests, which is exactly why we need to talk about it.

Every angler should be cheering for the comeback of the prehistoric fish. They reach lengths of 14 feet and can weigh as much as 800 pounds. And best of all, thanks to the briny waters of the lower Delaware River, Pennsylvania's anglers don't have to travel hard to catch one. Sturgeon are a sportsman's dream.

The problem is, though, there are very few sturgeon left to take your bait. Experts believe there are likely no more than 300 spawning adults in the Delaware River population. Compared to the numbers witnessed two centuries ago, the figure is pathetic.

In the early half of the 19th century, stories of a bountiful sturgeon fishery abound. Estimates put the sturgeon population at close to 200,000 fish. For the Delaware River's shad fisherman, they were a giant-sized nuisance -- destroying gear and clogging up the river when it was time to spawn.

But then came a love of caviar -- or, more aptly, sturgeon eggs. As the region's commercial fishery took off, the population was decimated. The slaughter lasted just a few decades before populations were so low it no longer paid to target the giant fish.


Today, the fish have an even tougher battle. They have a fighting chance against a hook and line. But sturgeon can't escape a loss of their prime habitat. Travel to the southern end of the Delaware River and you'll find a waterway that's endured decades of runaway development. The water is polluted and the bottom has been torn apart by endless dredging. Essentially, if you wouldn't swim in the water, fish don't want to spawn in it.

It's clear that the region's sturgeon population faces an uphill battle. A rebound in numbers is nowhere in sight. But that doesn't mean we should give up. The fish is arguably one of the state's best aquatic treasures, and yet few folks know the species even exists.

That's why our first priority must be spreading the word. It will be a long time until the Delaware River is clean enough to call it an optimal breeding habitat. Even then, it will be decades before the slow-growing fish (they can live for 60 years or more) can spawn enough young fish to launch a sustainable population. But that doesn't mean we can't start fighting for the fish in a big way.

The secret is out. Sturgeon are here, but they need our help.

Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sports@york