Green sturgeon get partial protection

Green sturgeon get partial protection

By John Driscoll
The Times Standard

April 5, 2005

A federal fisheries agency has proposed to protect the weakest of two populations of the green sturgeon, a 160 million-year-old species whose anchorhold today is in the Klamath and Trinity rivers.

The population of the Jurassic-era fish south of the Eel River would be listed as threatened, mainly because of dams on the Sacramento and Feather rivers. The dams block sturgeon from reaching spawning habitat.

But because there are at least two spawning populations from the Eel River north, the proposal holds, the fish in that area don’t warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposed rule outraged environmentalists who petitioned for the sturgeon’s protection in 2001. The National Marine Fisheries Service was sued by environmental groups on its first determination that the species didn’t warrant protection, and lost a case in U.S. District Court, which demanded the agency reevaluate its position.

“The science clearly shows that the sturgeon is on the brink of extinction throughout its range,” said Cynthia Elkins of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “There’s no reason to leave these fish unprotected.”

Elkins said the proposed rule would be challenged.

The fisheries service left the northern population on its species-of-concern list because of the uncertainty and availability of data. The sturgeon’s status will be reassessed within five years if warranted, the agency said.

The green sturgeon spends more time than any other sturgeon in the ocean, feeding on shrimp, crabs, worms and injured fish. The fish range widely, as far north as Grays Harbor, Wash., and Puget Sound. Historically, their range is believed to have been huge, from the Bering Sea to Ensenada, Mexico, and spawned in many more rivers than they do today.

They run up rivers to spawn, but not until they are 15 to 17 years old.

That, a lack of information about their life history and water quality and temperature in the Klamath River may make green sturgeon vulnerable, said Dave Hillemeier, fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe.

“We know a lot more than we did five years ago,” Hillemeier said, “but we don’t know nearly enough.”

The tribe has put in place a part-time closure on sturgeon fishing this spring, despite the fact that its catch history does not show a trend in one direction or the other, he said.

NMFS fishery biologist Melissa Neuman said that when the agency’s biological review team looked at the threats facing the sturgeon on the Klamath, Trinity and the Rogue, they didn’t overlap. That is, it determined that one catastrophic event wouldn’t wipe out an entire population segment, she said.

Also, the team thought that spawning habitat in the rivers is available in about the same amount as was historically.

But on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, Neuman said, spawning habitat is seriously curtailed by dams.

The agencies ongoing or planned studies include tagging and tracking sturgeon, genetics studies to understand sturgeon population structures and studies to determine habitat quality.