For Immediate Release, April 17, 2007
Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Habitat Protections Sought for Imperiled Green Sturgeon
Government Delays May Drive Prehistoric Fish Extinct
SAN FRANCISCO– The Center for Biological Diversity today sent notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failure to designate critical habitat and protective regulations for the southern population of the green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris), an imperiled migratory fish that has survived since the Pleistocene. The Fisheries Service listed the southern population, comprised of green sturgeon in the San Francisco Bay and Delta that spawn in the Sacramento River basin, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in April 2006.
“Despite some of the lowest recorded numbers of spawning sturgeon in the Sacramento River recently and the obvious importance of habitat protection, the green sturgeon still does not have the protection it needs for conservation and recovery,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “With so few green sturgeon left and the Delta food web they depend upon unraveling, it is imperative we protect critical habitat for this ancient fish in the Sacramento River and Bay Delta.”
The Fisheries Service was required to designate critical habitat — specific areas essential to the conservation of the species or which may require special management considerations or protection — when the sturgeon was listed. Instead it made a finding that critical habitat was “not determinable” at the time of listing, meaning it had one more year to complete the designation. For threatened species the agency must also issue a special regulation defining how they will be protected from “take” and other harmful activities, which in this case it has failed to do.
Critical habitat provides an important additional layer of protection beyond species listing. A peer-reviewed study by the Center for Biological Diversity published in the April 2005 issue of BioScience and titled “The Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: A Quantitative Analysis” concludes that species with critical habitat designated for two or more years are more than twice as likely to have improving population trends than species without it.
In listing the green sturgeon as threatened, the Fisheries Service concluded it is likely to become endangered because of “the destruction, modification or curtailment of habitat and inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” particularly citing the loss of spawning habitat as a major threat. The southern green sturgeon population only spawns in the Sacramento River system below Shasta Dam, making it especially susceptible to habitat destruction.
The estimated abundance of green sturgeon in the Sacramento River has plummeted by 95 percent between 2001, when the Center first petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the species, and 2006. The California Department of Fish and Game predicted that fewer than 25 female green sturgeon would migrate to Sacramento River spawning grounds in 2006. The state adopted emergency sturgeon-fishing regulations in 2006 to protect declining populations of white and green sturgeon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, prohibiting anglers statewide from catching and keeping any green sturgeon.
The severe green and white sturgeon declines come as scientists have also documented catastrophic declines of open-water fish species in the Delta, warning of wholesale collapse of the Delta ecosystem. The Center petitioned for increased state and federal protection for Delta smelt in 2006. Longfin smelt, threadfin shad and striped bass have also fallen to alarmingly low levels due to the combined effects of Delta water diversions and exports, pesticides and pollution, and impacts of introduced species on the Delta’s planktonic food web. Copepods that sustain the Delta food chain and are a food source for green sturgeon have fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded.
The green sturgeon is one of the most ancient fish species in the world, remaining unchanged in appearance since it first emerged 200 million years ago. Green sturgeon are among the largest and longest living fish species found in freshwater, living up to 70 years, reaching 7.5 feet in length, and weighing up to 350 pounds. Sturgeon have a prehistoric appearance, with a skeleton consisting of mostly cartilage and rows of bony plates for scales. They have snouts like shovels and mouths like vacuum cleaners that are used to siphon shrimp and other food from sandy depths.
Like salmon, sturgeon are anadromous, migrating to the ocean and returning to freshwater to spawn. Although adult green sturgeon in North America range from Alaska to Mexico in marine waters and feed in estuaries and bays from San Francisco Bay to British Columbia, only three known spawning grounds remain — in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers in California and the Rogue River in Oregon. Between four and seven spawning populations have already been eliminated in California and Oregon due to habitat destruction, water withdrawals from spawning rivers, and overfishing. The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to list the imperiled northern green sturgeon population, ranging from the Eel River in Humboldt County, California to the Columbia River in Washington.
For more information about the green sturgeon visit:
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 35,000 members dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild lands.