After years of disagreement, NOAA's Fisheries Service has decided to list the Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species. The listing will include five distinct populations of the fish -- four are endangered, and one will be listed as threatened.
The action comes in response to an NRDC listing petition filed in 2009. Since 1998, the government has banned fishing for these ancient creatures -- they haven't changed much in 85 million years -- but recent studies have suggested the ban hasn't effectively protected them. Some scientists and advocates say the endangerment listing will be the extra push the fish need to rebound.
Sturgeon were overfished for years for their roe. As Bruce Stutz wrote in his story for OnEarth's winter 2012 issue, the actual populations of sturgeon are very hard to pin down. They can travel from their home rivers and bays up and down the coast for thousands of miles, making an accurate count difficult.
Still, it has become clear that even with the fishing ban in place, sturgeon could soon disappear. In its listing notice, NOAA wrote that prior to 1890 the Delaware River had more than 180,000 spawning females. Now? Probably less than 300, and spawning most likely occurs in only 20 of 38 rivers the fish used to occupy.
By listing the sturgeon as endangered, it may allow for a comprehensive recovery plan to be enacted. By firmly establishing where sturgeon tend to gather or breed, officials could then place restrictions on fishing or specific fishing equipment to protect them from bycatch. Of course, establishing those crucial areas, as well as exactly which population of sturgeon an individual comes from, is quite a challenge. Scientists are using genetic methods as well as implanted transmitters to see where sturgeon travel, and to better understand the behavior of this mysterious creature.
Dewayne Fox, a researcher at Delaware State University who works on sturgeon, said the listing was warranted but worried that distinguishing some populations as endangered and one as threatened could represent a serious challenge. The threatened group is in the Gulf of Maine, but when the animals can range so widely, management of one group could affect another.
"Any time you're talking about an animal that moves such great distances -- thousands of miles -- and covers these areas on a seasonal basis, and has the possibility to interact with so many different fisheries and anthropogenic impacts, i think it's going to be a management nightmare in terms of recovery," Fox told me.
Fox said we could be looking at "multiple decades" before any real recovery of the sturgeon is seen. Still, he said the endangered listing will most likely increase funding for research, helping to update knowledge about the fish, which in some cases relies on work dating back a century.
Brad Sewell, an NRDC attorney who has advocated for the endangerment listing, also applauded NOAA's action: "That such a monstrous fish swam alongside dinosaurs -- and then out swam their mass extinction -- should give us hope that, with our protection, it will survive."
NOAA's listing officially goes into effect on April 6, 2012.
Image: Reg Speller/Getty Images