The National Marine Fisheries Service on Tuesday listed Atlantic sturgeon in the Gulf of Maine — including populations in the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers — as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The service will now develop regulations to protect the fish.
In addition to listing the Gulf of Maine sturgeon as threatened, four other “distinct population segments” of Atlantic sturgeon — Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic — were listed as endangered species.
Atlantic sturgeon, which date back 200 million years, often are seen leaping out of the Kennebec River. The armor-plated fish can reach up to 14 feet in length and live up to 60 years. The Kennebec offers prime habitat because the anadromous fish live in salt water and spawn in fresh water.
While NOAA says the Kennebec is the only Maine river with a known population of breeding Atlantic sturgeon, the agency says the giant fish also may be spawning in the Penobscot.
But populations of Atlantic sturgeon declined during the late 1800s and early 20th century because of dams that blocked access to spawning areas, poor water quality, dredging and vessels hitting the fish.
In 2009, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned to have Atlantic sturgeon listed under the Endangered Species Act.
After a formal status review, consideration of scientific and commercial data and public comments, the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Commerce issued Tuesday’s ruling.
“We determined that the [New York Bight] and [Chesapeake Bay] DPS’ of Atlantic sturgeon are currently in danger of extinction throughout their range, and the [Gulf of Maine] DPS of Atlantic sturgeon is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout its range, on the basis of low population size and the level of impacts and number of threats such as continued degraded water quality, habitat impacts from dredging, continued bycatch in state and federally managed fisheries, and vessel strikes to each DPS,” the ruling states.
Still, the species is showing signs of “potential recovery” after the removal of threats such as directed fishing, improvements in water quality and the removal of dams such as the Edwards Dam in Augusta, the report states.
A historic river restoration project under way on the Penobscot is listed as one of the positive signs for sturgeon.
“The Veazie Dam in the Penobsot River represents a barrier to Atlantic sturgeon migrating to historical spawning habitat near Milford which blocks 29 kilometers of habitat,” the agency wrote. “The Penobscot River Restoration Project intends to remove this dam within the next couple of years and at that time, access to the entire historical spawning habitat will be restored.”
While it has been illegal to catch Atlantic sturgeon for more than a decade, Tuesday’s ruling will result in more strict prohibitions to protect the species, according to Lisa Manning, acting chief of the Endangered Species Division of NMFS.
Tuesday’s ruling will enact a prohibition against “take” of population segments listed as endangered — now including populations of Atlantic sturgeon in Chesapeake Bay, New York Bight, Carolina and South Atlantic, according to a release from NOAA. Take includes “harassing, harming, pursuing, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing or collecting.”
Now listed as threatened, Atlantic sturgeon in the Gulf of Maine may acquire those same protections to protect them from becoming endangered, but Manning said rulemaking to determine those protections is continuing.
But industries and fishermen operating in the Penobscot and Kennebec watersheds already have been working around endangered sturgeon for years — in that case, shortnose sturgeon.
A much smaller relative to the Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon live and breed in both the Penobscot and the Kennebec rivers.
In early 2010, Manning told the Bangor Daily News that because shortnose sturgeons already are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and because the two types of fish favor the same types of habitat, she would not anticipate that a federal listing of Atlantic sturgeon would have major impacts on Maine.
For instance, companies that want to dredge in the Penobscot already are required to work with federal biologists to minimize impacts to to shortnose sturgeon.
On Wednesday, West Bath attorney Steve Hinchman called the ruling “good news for the sturgeon, because they’ll finally start getting more protection. Clearly, given the rapid decline, we have to do something or we’ll lose a spectacular fish.”
Hinchman said a dredging project in the Kennebec River last summer “dramatically” reduced sturgeon activity.
The Army Corps of Engineers periodically dredges sections of the Lower Kennebec to make it possible for destroyers built at Bath Iron Works to reach the ocean.
“This decision certainly will have implications both for the location of future dredging, the amount of future dredging and the timing of future dredging,” Hinchman said.
Brad Sewall, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also praised the decision.
“The Atlantic sturgeon survived the Ice Age but is now threatened with extinction,” Sewall wrote in an email to The Times Record. “Despite a more than decade-old ban on fishing for the sturgeon, a host of other threats — including ongoing catch in other fisheries, habitat damage, pollution and the growing effects of climate change — have proved too challenging for the species to recover. By recognizing the fish’s endangered status, the federal government is giving this remarkable fish a fighting chance to live on into the 21st century.”
BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report. To see more from The Times Record, visit timesrecord.com.