Protecting the Sturgeon: Joy and consternation
By BRAD RICH
Coastal Review Online
Last of two parts
preserve what remains of the giant Atlantic sturgeon, the federal
government will place the fish on the endangered species list starting
Friday, Arpil 6. That leaves state officials waiting for the other shoe
Carolina, as did some of the other states affected by the listing,
opposed federal protection, though the sturgeon’s population in state
waters is at historic lows. State officials aren’t so much worried
about fishermen being fined for catching sturgeon since the state has
banned possession of the fish since 1991. The numbers are so low that
few hook-and-line fishermen have ever seen a sturgeon.
state based its objections primarily on the restrictions that will
likely be included in the plan that the federal government must devise
to restore the sturgeon’s habitat in order to bring its population back
to an acceptable level. The plan could include restrictions on
commercial fishing gear and inlet dredging.
officials don’t expect to the see those rules for a year or so, said
Jacob Doyd, a protected species biologist at the N.C. Division of
Marine Fisheries main office in Morehead City. In the interim, North
Carolina will continue to try to learn more about the fish, he said, so
officials will know which areas and specific fisheries will need gear
restrictions and other protective measures.
the Cape Fear, the division is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to tag sturgeon to learn more about where they go and when.
That knowledge, officials hope, will include specific areas where
sturgeons prefer to spawn.
said that the lack of knowledge was one reason the division opposed the
endangered species listing. For example, it’s not even clear at what
age the fish mature in North Carolina waters, he said.
Time of ‘Heavy Lifting’
Daniel, the division’s director, said the listing will “require some
really heavy lifting for the next year or so” as the agency “scrambles”
to determine what will be necessary.
Interactions between fishermen and sturgeon are probably fairly common, he said, but division officials are a bit in the dark.
(the National Marine Fisheries Service) has indicated there are
problems with trawls and gill nets, but they haven’t really shared
their data with us yet,” Daniels said. “We haven’t gotten much
direction. And we use a lot of trawls and gill nets in North Carolina’s
service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
is one of two federal agencies that administer the Endangered Species
compliance will be time-consuming and expensive, he said, because it
costs a lot to put observers on vessels. And budgets are tight.
said that he, like colleagues in Virginia, is also concerned about
vessels running afoul of the law by unintentionally striking sturgeon.
are a tremendous number of questions about all of this,” he said. “How
we come up with funding for observers is going to be a key issue.”
raised the cost of complying with new restrictions and the state’s
other objections to the listing in a December letter to the National
Marine Fisheries Service. Roy Crabtree, the service’s regional
administrator in St. Petersburg, Fla., noted in his written response to
Daniel a month later that the service is prohibited by the Endangered
Species Act from considering “economic consequences” in its listing
also noted that the state’s sturgeon moratorium had done nothing to
improve the population. Neither does it address water quality issues in
the rivers were the fish spawn, he wrote, nor does it prevent
commercial fishermen from unintentionally catching sturgeon in their
gill nets and trawls, known as “bycatch.”
believe continued overutilization of Atlantic sturgeon from bycatch in
commercial fisheries is an ongoing impact… that is contributing to
their endangered status,” Crabtree wrote.
While the state could sue to stop the listing, Daniel said no lawsuit is planned.
division will continue to collect information on the fish, which will
play a key role in the agency’s almost certain effort to obtain what’s
called “incidental take” permits from the National Marine Fisheries
Service, Doyd and Daniel said.
Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, the service could allow,
under carefully prescribed circumstances, a limited number of sturgeon
to be unintentionally killed or wounded – “takes” in the language of
the law. A Section 10 “direct take” permit would allow the division or
other agencies to remove sturgeon for scientific purposes.
the same section of the law the division has used in the past to make
allowances for fishermen for who interact with or accidentally take
threatened or endangered sea turtles while legally harvesting shrimp,
even while using required turtle excluder devices in their trawls.
are worried about the listing’s potential effect on permits for
maintenance dredging of navigation channels in rivers and inlets.
Piatkowski, a biologist who regularly deals with endangered species for
the Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District Office, said listing
of the fish will surely complicate and likely slow the process for some
the EDA (Endangered Species Act) dictates how we do our work, in the
sense that when a species is listed, we are required to consult with
NMFS to ensure that dredging or other activities don’t negatively
impact the species,” he said.
the formal process spelled out in Section 7 of the law, Piatkowski
said, the Corps evaluates its proposed action in that light and submits
it to NMFS. The service responds, providing its own analysis of likely
effects and spelling out, if necessary, “reasonable and prudent
measures” – essentially conditions – required to minimize those impacts
should the activity be approved.
of the Corps’ experience in this region, like the fisheries division,
has centered on sea turtles. Piatkowski said it was impossible to say,
at this point, whether the listing of sturgeon could make dredging in
some areas impossible. With sea turtles, he said, the corps has found
that it is still able to “meet the needs” of those who desire dredging.
But, he added, the endangered status of turtle species has resulted in
requirements above and beyond those that would have been necessary had
turtles not been in the area or not been listed.
“Are there challenges?” he asked, rhetorically. “Sure. But it’s just a part of what we have to do.”
time a listed species is present in an area proposed for dredging, he
said, it’s possible that there will be smaller windows of time allowed
Piatkowksi didn’t want to discuss specific inlets, one that is clearly
on the minds of many in the area is Bogue Inlet, the often
difficult-to-navigate passageway between western Bogue Sound and the
Atlantic Ocean. Dredging is frequently needed there, and Rep. Walter B.
Jones Jr., R-N.C., who represents most of coastal North Carolina,
recently spearheaded a successful effort to get federal hurricane
relief money made available for a project this year.
said that if an action, such as a dredge project is approved, and then
a new species is added before the project takes place, it is necessary
for the corps to “re-initiate” consultation with NMFS.
of this, Piatkowski said, is complicated by the fact that sturgeons are
anadromous; they are born in fresh water, spend most of their lives in
the sea and return to fresh water to spawn. That means they use inlets.
It’s further complicated, the biologist said – agreeing with Daniel –
because much about the fish and its lifecycle is unknown, or at least
not perfectly understood.
bottom line, the corps biologist said, is that while the sturgeon
listing presents numerous challenges, “the corps is already working
hard to gather data … and will continue to work with NMFS and the
(state) division of marine fisheries and with other states” to learn
how those challenges can best be addressed.
the reservations and challenges, the sturgeon is worth saving, said
Noah Greenwald, director of the Hudson River Riverkeeper. Riverkeepers,
which are part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has a sturgeon as its logo.
“Atlantic sturgeons are magnificent, long-lived creatures… that have
suffered terribly from overfishing, habitat destruction and power plant
intakes decimating their numbers,” he said. “Every effort should be
made to protect the remaining population and the critical habitat it
needs to survive and prosper.”
Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, petitioned
the federal government in 2009 to declare the Atlantic sturgeon as
endangered. Brad Sewell, an attorney with the group, told the
Huffington Post that despite a decade-old ban on fishing, other threats
have proved too challenging. He said the decision gives the fish that
survived the Ice Age “a fighting chance to live on into the 21st
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)