Federal Government Proposes to List Atlantic Sturgeon as Endangered Species

Some good news on NRDC’s Atlantic sturgeon listing petition:  the federal government agreed this week that the Atlantic sturgeon should be listed as an endangered species.  The Atlantic sturgeon is a prehistoric-looking behemoth of a fish, growing up to 14 feet long, weighing as much as 800 pounds, and with armor-like plates protruding from much of its body.  While targeted sturgeon harvesting is no longer allowed, the fish has nearly vanished from our rivers and ocean as a result of a gauntlet of harms, including bycatch (this is when the species is caught by fishermen targeting other species), pollution, dams, dredging, ship strikes, and -- increasingly -- the effects of global warming. 

NRDC filed its petition last September.  In January, 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined the listing might be warranted and initiated a detailed review.  Atlantic sturgeon once spawned in dozens of rivers from Maine to Florida.  Their numbers reached tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands in some rivers.  Commercial harvest of Atlantic sturgeon once approached 3,700 tons.  Today, however, spawning populations in nine U.S. rivers are believed to have gone extinct.  Most of the remaining rivers have populations so depleted -- ~1% of historic numbers -- that their numbers cannot be reliably estimated and their present day survival is in question.   

NMFS is proposing to list four out of five so-called distinct population segments (DPSs) of Atlantic sturgeon – spanning from the South Atlantic up to the New York Bight – as endangered, which is the most protective designation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The agency is proposing to list the Gulf of Maine DPS, at the northern end of the species’ U.S. range, as threatened.  In its listing proposal, NMFS identified bycatch of Atlantic sturgeon as a more significant threat than previously believed.  So-called sink gill nets are particularly deadly to Atlantic sturgeons as they get caught up in the nets near the bottom of the water column and suffocate.  NMFS also highlighted the looming threat that climate change poses to the species, particularly in the more southern parts of its range, including as a result of increased water temperatures and water pollution.

Atlantic sturgeon live most of their lives in the ocean – and they do not reproduce quickly. When males reach around 10 years of age and females around 15 years, they return to the river where they were hatched to spawn.  They do not spawn every year.  Females spawn every 2-5 years and males every 1-5 years.  Atlantic sturgeon can live up to 60 years and females, on average, do not reach 50 percent of maximum lifetime egg production until they are 29 years old, which is 3-10 times later than other bony fish species.

NFMS is accepting comments on the proposed listing until January 4, 2011 here.  The agency has split up the listing process, with one proposed rule, which is identified with the rule identifier number (RIN) 0648-XJ00, covering the Gulf of Maine, New York Bight, and Chesapeake DPSs, and another identified as RIN 0648-XN50 covering the Carolina and South Atlantic DPSs.  If you want to comment on both proposed listings, you need to be sure to submit your comments in both rulemaking processes.  Additional instructions for submitting comments, including by fax or mail, are provided in yesterday’s Federal Register notices here (for the three northern DPSs) and here (for the two southern DPSs).

If the Atlantic sturgeon is listed under the ESA, it will be much better protected.  Thus, it is important for everyone who cares about the future of this fascinating species to weigh in with the agency in the next three months.  I will be sure to let you know about additional developments in the weeks and months ahead, as well as any new opportunities for you to take action to save the Atlantic sturgeon.