| GROUPS FILE LAWSUIT
TO PROTECT GREEN STURGEON
Contemporaries of the dinosaurs, sturgeon fossils date back 200 million years
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 14, 2002
Contact: Cynthia Elkins (707) 923-2931 Environmental
Protection Information Center
Conservation organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court today against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for its failure to make a determination to list the North American green sturgeon, Acipenser medirostris, as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The complaint filed in Northern District Court by the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) charges unreasonable delay in responding to an ESA listing petition for the imperiled green sturgeon.
EPIC, CBD, and WaterKeepers Northern California formally petitioned NMFS in June 2001 to protect the green sturgeon under the ESA. The petition documented that the green sturgeon has declined up to 88 percent in most of its range and is now restricted to small spawning populations in only three river basins in California and Oregon. NMFS made a formal finding in December 2001 that listing the green sturgeon as endangered or threatened may be warranted. NMFS was required to conduct a status review of the species and to make a final determination of listing status by June 12, 2002.
"Given the disturbingly low population estimates of green sturgeon, any further delay in protecting the species is unacceptable," said Cynthia Elkins of EPIC. "Immediate protection under the Endangered Species Act is needed to prevent the loss of any more spawning populations and to give these fish half a chance to recover in former spawning rivers such as the Eel River."
"Green sturgeon are a unique and fascinating part of our large river systems," stated Jeff Miller of CBD. "NMFS needs to act promptly to protect this ancient fish species for future generations."
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. Literally surviving contemporaries of the dinosaurs, green sturgeon are one of the world's most ancient species having remained virtually unchanged since appearing in the fossil record more than 200 million years ago.
Dams, water diversions, pollution, and over-fishing have reduced the green sturgeon to only three remaining spawning populations in the Klamath-Trinity River and Sacramento River basins in California, and the Rogue River in southern Oregon. All of these populations are at critically low levels. Many scientists have come to believe that the Klamath-Trinity river system is the center of the universe for green sturgeon. In a major fish kill on the Klamath River in late September, a few green sturgeon were also reported among the various fish species that made up 5% of the fish kill that overall destroyed at least 33,000 chinook salmon.
Unlike other species of sturgeon, green sturgeon spawn in cold water and gravel habitat similar to what is required for salmon and steelhead. Siltation by logging, de-watering of rivers, and agricultural and land development has largely eliminated many of the deep holes that they require. These water quality and quantity problems have severely impacted green sturgeon, which have experienced an 88% decline in most of their range and the loss of the majority of known spawning populations over the last four decades.
The species originally ranged from Mexico to Alaska in marine waters and fed in estuaries and bays from Monterey Bay to British Columbia. A number of spawning populations of green sturgeon in California have been presumed lost since the 1960s and 1970s - in the Eel River, South Fork Trinity River, and San Joaquin River. Severe declines of green sturgeon have been noted recently in northern rivers which may have once had spawning populations, such as the Umpqua River in Oregon and the Fraser River in Canada.
While a decision for listing on the green sturgeon has been expected since June, conservationists expressed concern that Bush Administration interference could again be responsible for continued delays. Last month, a federal biologist with NMFS went public with accusations that the administration had ignored his findings that increased water flows were essential to protecting listed salmon. Conservationists are concerned about a developing pattern of Bush administration interference that has withheld significant scientific recommendations as well as economic reports demonstrating the major economic and ecological importance of the Klamath River. At the same time, water for upper basin irrigation has continued unrestricted despite impacts to not only to Klamath Basin fisheries but also to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges - again this year, leaving many refuge marshes dry during the fall waterfowl migration.
Sturgeon are modern relicts of the ancient group of bony fishes, and have a skeleton that is mostly cartilage rather than bone, and rows of bony plates for protection instead of scales. The sturgeon has a shovel-like snout and vacuum cleaner-like mouth that it uses to siphon food.
The green sturgeon spends the most time in saltwater of any of the three sturgeon that live part of their lives in the ocean. Green sturgeon tagged by the Yurok Tribe in the Klamath River system have ended up in Grays Harbor, Wash., about 60 miles north of Astoria, Oregon. Others have made it into Puget Sound. Just south of the Klamath River, green sturgeon can also be found in Humboldt Bay.
Green sturgeon spend much of their time in river estuaries and in the ocean, moving upstream mostly to spawn. A few spawning sites have been identified, mostly on the Klamath River. One pool on the Klamath is known to be particularly active. Leaping and jostling fish crowd into a place called "The Sturgeon Hole," about a mile upstream from Orleans, California, in spring and early summer. To a lesser degree, spawning also occurs in the Sacramento River, especially in one of its tributaries, the Feather River, and in the Rogue River in southern Oregon.
Green sturgeon spawn in the freshwater of only a few large rivers, all of which have diversions, dams, and sediment problems that limit sufficient water flow and suitable spawning conditions. The San Francisco Bay population of green sturgeon has been estimated to fluctuate between 500 and 1000 adult fish in the last few decades. While the exact size of the Klamath Basin green sturgeon population is unknown, it is likely the largest spawning population. It is believed that the spawning population in the Eel River (south of Eureka, CA) disappeared by the 1970s, although a few adult sturgeon have been found upstream in recent years.
A NMFS draft status review published in July 2002 indicated there may be two or more distinct population segments or "stocks" of green sturgeon (spawning populations of sturgeon that do not interbreed), with the Eel River in California as the dividing line between northern and southern populations. If there is no interbreeding between these distinct populations, the species may be more imperiled than previously thought.
In addition to habitat destruction, historic over-fishing was a major cause of decline of the green sturgeon - present fisheries probably continue to deplete a stock of large, old fish that cannot renew itself at present harvest rates. Sturgeons are highly vulnerable to over-fishing because of the long time it takes them to reach breeding maturity, and their infrequent reproductive success. Their large size and sluggish nature make them easy to net and snag.
Until recently, various West Coast fisheries were harvesting at least 6,000 to 11,000 green sturgeon per year. In recent years, the annual harvest has been estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 adult fish. More restrictive sturgeon size limit fishing regulations have been gradually implemented in California, Oregon, and Washington - mainly aimed to protect the larger and more common white sturgeon, but which allow many of the large breeding-age green sturgeon to be caught.
In North America only seven sturgeon species may now remain
Until recently, eight species of sturgeon occurred in North America - four of which (plus one population of the white sturgeon) are already listed as endangered or threatened; the Shortnose sturgeon, Gulf sturgeon, Pallid sturgeon, Alabama sturgeon, and the Kootenai River population of the white sturgeon.
On September 17, 2002, the last known Alabama sturgeon, a male named "Bubba," died in a state fish hatchery. The Alabama sturgeon was formerly widespread throughout 1,000 miles of the Mobile River Basin of Alabama and Mississippi. While hope remains that a few wild Alabama sturgeon may still be found somewhere in the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, intensive fish surveys and widespread recreational fishing have failed to find any since 1999.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of native species and their habitats in the Western Hemisphere through science, education, policy, and environmental law.
The Oregon Natural Resources Council is a non-profit organization based in Oregon, dedicated to protecting and conserving the wildlife, lands, waters, and natural resources of the Pacific Northwest region.
More information about the green sturgeon, a copy of
the listing petition, and a color photo of the species are available on
the EPIC website:
For an illustration courtesy of NOAA: http://www.psmfc.org/habitat/edu_gsturg_image.html