LAWSUIT TO BE FILED TO PROTECT GREEN STURGEON
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 20, 2003
Conservation organizations formally notified the Bush Administration of their intent to initiate legal action to protect the green sturgeon, challenging its January 29, 2003 determination not to list the ancient fish species under the Endangered Species Act. The notice of intent to sue was filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC).
The decision came from the U.S. Department of Commerce's NOAA Fisheries (formally known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) more than seven months overdue, and was only issued after conservation organizations sued the agency to force it to make a determination. The organizations initially filed a scientific petition to list the green sturgeon in June 2001, documenting precipitous declines in this fish species that has survived more than 200 million years.
Conservationists strongly dispute NOAA Fisheries'
determination that the green sturgeon "neither appears to be declining
in population numbers or are in danger of extinction." Only three
river systems are known to support green sturgeon today, in the Klamath-Trinity,
Sacramento, and Rogue Rivers, with the species divided into at least two
distinct populations that apparently do not interbreed. Each population
is believed to consist of only a few hundred female fish of breeding age,
The greenish-gold, bony fish look prehistoric, 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 the sandy depths. The green sturgeon, unlike most other species of sturgeon, spawns in cold water and gravel habitat similar to what is required for salmon and steelhead trout.
"Siltation from clearcut logging, de-watering of rivers, and agricultural and land development have largely eliminated the deep holes and river habitat that green sturgeon require," Jeff Miller of CBD said. "The same severe water quality and quantity problems that have impacted salmon in the Pacific Northwest have also decimated green sturgeon," Miller added.
In marine waters, the green sturgeon ranges from Mexico to Alaska and it feeds 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 that may have once had spawning populations, including the Umpqua River in Oregon and the Fraser River in Canada.
"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 2002, 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," said Wendell Wood, Southern Oregon Field Representative for ONRC.
In October, a federal biologist with the (then) National Marine Fisheries Service went public with accusations that the administration had ignored his findings that increased water flows were essential to protecting salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. "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," Wood said.
More information about the green sturgeon, a copy of the listing petition, and color photos of the species are available on the EPIC website at www.wildcalifornia.org, the CBD web site at . An illustration of the green sturgeon is available courtesy of NOAA at www.psmfc.org/habitat/edu_gsturg_image.html.
More Information on Green Sturgeon
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.
Green sturgeon spend a lot of 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.
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.