A small crowd gathered Friday afternoon to watch Atlantic sturgeon spawning under a bridge in downtown Gardiner. Credit: Kevin Miller / AP

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It sounds like a storyline from a feel-good nature documentary: A species of fish that coexisted with dinosaurs, then nearly went extinct and is now a major draw in some riverside communities.

That is the real life story of sturgeon, a fish that is making a resurgence in Maine.

Last week, people gathered on a bridge in downtown Gardiner to watch hundreds of sturgeon that had gathered in the Cobbossee Stream. Although sturgeon have become a regulator sight in the Kennebec River, their presence in Cobbossee Stream is relatively new.

“Cobbossee means ‘The place where the sturgeon are’ in the Abenaki language so there are often hundreds or thousands of sturgeon in that general area, but they are usually not in the stream,” Sean Ledwin of the Maine Department of Marine Resources recently told Maine Public. “So this is pretty unusual. But they are definitely spawning right below the A-1 Diner there. Folks who have lived in town for their whole lives have never seen anything like it.”

While most of the sturgeon are three to six feet long, Ledwin said he saw one that was 10-feet long last week.

The return of sturgeon to Maine rivers and streams is an environmental and conservation success story. With better water quality and the removal of some dams, the waterways are more hospitable to wildlife, including sturgeon.

Restrictions on fishing have also helped the sturgeon population begin to rebound. Sturgeon were once harvested in great numbers for caviar, fish eggs that are considered a delicacy. It can take one sturgeon up to 15 years to reproduce, so catching sturgeon for caviar was devastating to the species.

Sturgeon are still considered threatened in Maine and fishing for them remains prohibited, as does swimming with or harassing sturgeon.

“Sturgeon are a real success story in Maine,” Ledwin said. “The Kennebec River is the biggest spawning aggregation. And with the Clean Water Act, the clean up of the river and the removal of the Edwards Dam [in Augusta], the sturgeon population has really grown significantly. And we’re really excited that people get to see them jumping in the river normally and then witness this unusual but spectacular event here in the Cobbossee Stream in Gardiner.”

The fish may also be helping the local economy. DownEast magazine recently published a short article about the best bars in Maine for watching sturgeon jump. It features bars in restaurants in Augusta, Topsham, Bucksport and Saco where you might see sturgeon, which tend to spectacularly jump out of the water.

Leaping sturgeon have also been touted to draw customers to businesses along the Kennebec.

This is how BDN outdoor contributor Ron Chase described an encounter with sturgeon while kayaking on the Kennebec last summer: “The most impressive and stimulating sightings were dozens of leaping sturgeons. They were prevalent when we entered the river and continued throughout our 10-mile journey.”

“The outwardly primitive fish, many five to seven feet in length, would blast up completely clear of the water, and land with an explosive crash. Some were close enough to splash us when reentering,” Chase wrote. “Despite determined attempts by several in our group, no one was able to capture their stupendous flights on camera.”

Whether you capture a photo or not, seeing prehistoric sturgeon in Maine waters is an increasingly common way to connect with an amazing history and exciting part of Maine’s present.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...