Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon outlived the dinosaurs, surviving in the waters of what would become Maine, where their progeny were a critical food source for the Wabanaki. The fish’s significance is evident in Maine place names like Passagassawakeag — a Passamaquoddy-Maliseet word for “the place for spearing sturgeon by torchlight” — and Cobbosseecontee, an Abenaki reference to “many sturgeon.” But European colonists and their descendants overfished and obstructed habitat with dams. Commercial landings peaked in the mid-19th century, followed by a population crash — although sporadic fishing continued into the late 20th century.
More recently, however, Maine’s sturgeon population has rebounded, owing largely to three factors. For starters, fishing closures on the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers in the early ’80s — and later, a statewide ban on harvesting sturgeon — reduced fishing pressure. Because female Atlantic sturgeon take more than 15 years to reach sexual maturity, then breed just once every four years, rebuilding a breeding population has taken decades. Secondly, dam removals have allowed sturgeon to return to their historical ranges upriver. Finally, water quality has improved since passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, championed by Maine senator Ed Muskie. And pollution reduction has brought people back to Maine’s rivers, contributing to an increase in sturgeon sightings.
Sturgeon look the part of prehistoric creatures, with bony scales, called scutes, armoring the top of their bodies. As long as they’ve been with us, though, there’s a lot we don’t know about Maine’s sturgeon — for instance, exactly why the bottom-feeding fish is prone to leaping several feet out of the water. Tagging projects by the Department of Marine Resources and the University of Maine have shed light on some mysteries, such as where each species overwinters (both move between fresh and salt water). Such research could help reduce the incidental bycatch of sturgeon in other fisheries.
Shortnose sturgeon can grow to more than four feet long and Atlantic sturgeon up to 14 feet. It’s illegal to catch them in Maine and unwise to eat them anyway — given their taste for sediment-dwelling mussels and their long lives, they contain high levels of toxins, including forever chemicals. However, if you buy dinner, they’ll often put on a show.
The lower Kennebec River hosts the state’s largest populations of both species and is one of a little more than 20 rivers on the planet where Atlantic sturgeon are known to spawn. Early summer is the best time to see them jumping in Maine, and the tables lining Cushnoc’s river-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows are the best place to watch them while nursing a pint in Augusta. Out front, the Augusta Downtown Alliance lined Water Street last summer with 26 artist-designed fiberglass sturgeon.
Leaping sturgeon are a common sight at the foot of the dam at Pejepscot Falls, between Brunswick and Topsham, which happens to be the site of the state’s first known commercial sturgeon fishery, documented in 1628. Nab a seat on the deck of the former paper mill, overlooking the Androscoggin River.
The house sangria is tasty, and the twin towers of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge frame the view from the covered patio. Since the Penobscot River’s Veazie Dam was removed, in 2013, researchers have documented shortnose sturgeon returning to former habitat upriver.
Fishermen in Camp Ellis, at the Saco River’s mouth, regularly glimpse displays of acrobatic sturgeon from the breakwater, 300 feet from Huot’s umbrella-dotted patio bar. The prehistoric fish were unheard of in the Saco for a century before researchers documented Atlantic sturgeon in 2007 and shortnose sturgeon two years later. — Brian Kevin