Sturgeons get a needed break

Sturgeons are these really cool, prehistoric creatures.  They date back 200 million years in the fossil record with relatively little morphological change making them kind of like living dinosaurs.    

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       Photo by Ken Bouc, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; courtesy USFWS

These bottom feeding fish spend much of their lives in rivers and river deltas taking their time to grow into their long (some up to 18 feet!), reproductively mature selves.  Because of their slow life cycle, though, changes to their habitat as well as exploitation of these fish for meat and caviar have led most species of sturgeon to become endangered. 

Last year, NRDC petitioned to have the Atlantic sturgeon added to the endangered species list and the National Marine Fisheries Service is now in the process of conducting a review.  Despite a fishing moratorium for Atlantic sturgeon that went into effect in 1998, the species is continuing to decline because it is still caught as bycatch in other fisheries and its habitat has been drastically altered, for example, due to damming, dredging and pollution.

Similarly, the pallid sturgeon, which is found in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is another species that has become critically endangered due largely to habitat changes from damming and channeling of the Mississippi River.  After 20 years on the endangered species list, the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that the pallid sturgeon was not significantly improving in part because despite harvest limitations, pallid sturgeon were still often caught in the shovelnose sturgeon fishery either as bycatch or because they were misidentified especially as young.

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                                                       Photo credit: USGS

In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that it will be applying endangered species protections to shovelnose sturgeon as well in the area of its range where it overlaps with pallid sturgeon due to its ‘similarity of appearance.’  This is great news and a necessary move for the pallid sturgeon as it struggles to recover. 

It is also likely to be good news for the shovelnose sturgeon which has seen some local declines and whose range-wide status is currently unknown.  We believe that the shovelnose sturgeon deserves its own evaluation to make sure that it too is not in jeopardy, but at the very least it will be important to keep a close eye on the subsequent harvest levels to ensure that the added protection in one portion of its range doesn’t simply intensify fishing pressure in the remaining portion of its range.

With some responsible management, however, this added protection should give both the pallid sturgeon and the shovelnose sturgeon some needed breathing room as they attempt to continue their 200 million year adventure on this planet.