WASHINGTON — An extremely rare shortnose sturgeon has been caught in the Potomac River near Chain Bridge, reigniting hopes that the endangered fish might be capable of staging a comeback after disappearing from the river for more than a decade.
The fish was hooked by 27-year-old Connor Lynch in the D.C. portion of the Potomac River near Fletcher’s Cove Friday afternoon.
Lynch said he and his fishing partner Josh Cohn were stunned as they brought the sturgeon to the boat and realized they had caught a fish that they believed had gone extinct in the Potomac decades ago.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God! This is literally a unicorn,” Lynch said.
The men took pictures without removing the fish from the water and then released it.
Shortnose sturgeon have not been seen in the Potomac since 2007, according to fish biologist Mike Mangold of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Biologists spent three years between 2004 and 2007 surveying for the fish and only caught two, Mangold said.
“It's exciting and really interesting that this fish was caught in April that far up the river because it suggests the possibility that there is spawning going on,” Mangold said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the shortnose sturgeon as an endangered species in 1967 after more than a century of overfishing and pollution decimated the species known for its caviar and prized meat.
Modern sturgeon are little changed from their prehistoric ancestors that swam the Earth’s oceans and rivers 245 million years ago, according to biologists.
“It looked like a dinosaur,” Lynch recalled after bringing the fish up to his boat. “It had a dinosaur tail.”
The species is particularly sensitive to pollution and poor water conditions, according to Hedrick Belin, CEO of the Potomac Conservancy.
The catch is a sign that efforts to restore the river are having an impact, according to Belin.
"The fact that it back indicates that pollution levels are down. Efforts to restore water quality are making a difference, and also that the habitats are being restored," Belin said.
The fishermen, who are strong conservation supporters, agree.
“I think the important part of this is we have improving water quality on the Potomac,” Lynch said.
But, he noted, Fletcher’s Cove has become endangered by a build-up of sediment that has threatened the site as an access point for fishermen and boaters.
“Fletchers Cove has its own challenges,” Lynch said. “There’s a movement to save the cove.”
“We need to have a place that we can still access the river and that’s an important part of this story as well.”