Call them big fish in a small pond.
Five endangered ocean dwellers arrived at Coney Island’s New York Aquarium this month, just a short stretch of sand away from their historical home. The five- to six-foot-long Atlantic sturgeon were once so common in the Hudson River and waters upstate that people called them “Albany beef,” but so many wound up on dinner plates that the species neared extinction. Their presence in the aquatic zoo will help educate New Yorkers about the fish’s historical importance and efforts to keep them alive, according to the Aquarium’s director.
“In past centuries, the species was a big part of New York State’s regional trade in sturgeon meat and caviar,” said Jon Forrest Dohlin, who is also the vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which works to preserve land and species across the globe . “Of course, things have changed, and conservationists in New York and elsewhere are now committed to saving this imperiled species.”
The sturgeons, which weigh more than 120 pounds each, now swim within the Aquarium’s “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, which is fashioned after their native habitat in the Hudson Canyon ecosystem, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The slippery swimmers arrived in the People’s Playground from their previous home at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in Maryland, where they were part of a spawn-and-release program. A ban on capturing the beasts took effect in 1998, but the crackdown had little effect on their numbers, according to the conservation group, which notes Atlantic sturgeons have been on the endangered-species list since 2012 due to a combination of overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution.
The fish are sure to stand out from the sharks featured in the exhibit, thanks to their rows of bony plates, and tube-like mouths lined with feelers to detect prey at the bottom of the sea. The fish in the exhibit are the size of a small adult, but other members of the species can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, according to the Conservation society.
The sturgeons arrived at the Aquarium at the same time the institution received a designation as a satellite research facility by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which will allow it to offer educational programming about other endangered fish that once called the Hudson home, reps for the society said.