In 1979, the Shortnose Sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum
) population of the Saint John River, New Brunswick, was estimated at 18,000 ± 5400 individuals. More recently, an estimate of 4836 ± 69 individuals in 2005, and between 3852 and 5222 individuals in 2009 and 2011, was made based on a single Shortnose Sturgeon winter aggregation in the Kennebecasis Bay of the Saint John River, a location thought to contain a large proportion of the population. These data, in combination with the Saint John River serving as the sole spawning location for Shortnose Sturgeon in Canada prompted a species designation of “Special Concern” in 2015 under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). A three-decade span of scientific observations amplified by the traditional knowledge and concerns of local indigenous groups have pointed to a declining population. However, the endemic Shortnose Sturgeon population of the Saint John River has not been comprehensively assessed in recent years. To help update the population estimate, we tested a rapid, low-cost side-scan sonar mapping method coupled with supervised image classification to enumerate individual Sturgeon in a previously undescribed critical winter location in the Saint John River. We then conducted an underwater video camera survey of the area, in which we did not identify any fish species other than Shortnose Sturgeon. These data were then synchronized with four years of continuous acoustic tracking of 18 Shortnose Sturgeon to produce a population estimate in each of the five identified winter habitats and the Saint John River as a whole. Using a side-scan sonar, we identified > 12,000 Shortnose Sturgeon in a single key winter location and estimated the full river population as > 20,000 individuals > ~40 cm fork length. We conclude that the combined sonar/image processing method presented herein provides an effective and rapid assessment of large fish such as Sturgeon when occurring in winter aggregation. Our results also indicate that the Shortnose Sturgeon population of the Saint John River could be similar to the last survey estimate conducted in the late 1970s, but more comprehensive and regular surveys are needed to more accurately assess the state of the population.
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