Fishermen say adding sturgeon to list of endangered species threatens industry

University of Maine graduate assistant Phillip Dionne holds a shortnose sturgeon, measuring nearly 36 inches, that was caught in the Penobscot River near Bangor in 2008.
University of Maine graduate assistant Phillip Dionne holds a shortnose sturgeon, measuring nearly 36 inches, that was caught in the Penobscot River near Bangor in 2008. Buy Photo
Posted April 26, 2012, at 6:49 a.m.

The New England Fishery Management Council Wednesday grappled with pending implementation of a NOAA decision to give Atlantic sturgeon the extreme protection of the Endangered Species Act all along the Atlantic coast.

Although there is not even a rough outline of the protective action, the development is destined to come at a heavy price paid by commercial fishermen, especially gillnetters, whose gear can snare the ancient giant that swims along the inshore waters and breeds in rivers.

Ron Smolowitz of the Fishery Survival Fund predicted an impact on commercial fishing that rivals the listing the “spotted owl” had on logging in the Pacific Northwest, making “protected habitat” of millions of acres.

“It’s incredible we’re going through this now when (environmental) conditions are more favorable and there are fewer fishermen,” said Councilor Glen Libby, a commercial fisherman from Maine. “The timing is a little scary.”

NOAA estimates the survival rate of sturgeon hauled up in fishermen’s bycatch — collateral fish pulled up when fishermen are targeting other species — is remarkably high, at roughly 80 percent from gillnets, 95 percent for sturgeon hauled up in trawl nets.

“I’ve probably caught two sturgeon in 35 years,” said Richard Burgess, who owns and operates multiple gillnet boats based in Gloucester. “This year alone, our 36 boats (in the Gloucester gillnet sector) have released four to five alive.”

Burgess said the last time he caught one was 2001.

“It was eight feet long, it took three of us to put it back live,” he said. “They’re strong as bulls and often break out of gillnets.”

NOAA estimates the survival rate of sturgeon hauled up in fishermen’s bycatch — collateral fish pulled up when fishermen are targeting other species — is remarkably high, at roughly 80 percent from gillnets, 95 percent for sturgeon hauled up in trawl nets.

Although there has never been a stock assessment for sturgeon, the listing decision was made Jan. 31 in response to a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Fishery management councilors found that difficult to understand.

“I am uncomfortable,” said Councilor David Pierce, deputy director of Massachusetts marine fisheries. “I have no information on the status of the stocks.”

“We didn’t ask for this fight,” said Councilor David Goethel, a New Hampshire trawl fisherman. “(Sturgeon) should not have been listed, it should have been sent back, and they should have done a stock assessment. We should gather as much info as possible.”

The fishery management council has no clear legal standing to halt or delay the listing, but the members settled on an aggressive and skeptical strategy of engagement and fact-seeking after lengthy debate in the middle of its three-day April meeting in Mystic, Conn.

On a 13-3 vote with one abstention, the council agreed to ask NOAA to clarify the methodology used for determining the fish was in jeopardy, bycatch and bycatch mortality estimates, and sought standing to work collaboratively with NOAA on a “biological opinion,” the formal document defining the extent of risk to the species’ perpetuation.

NOAA has divided the sturgeon into five “distinct population segments,” and decided that, in New England, the fish is “threatened,” a standard of risk below “endangered.” Still, the protective measures to be announced as soon as June, according to a presentation at the council by NOAA’s Kim Damon-Randall, will undoubtedly take its toll.

Rick Marks, a Washington, D.C. attorney whose firm represents a number of industry associations including the Monkfish Defense Fund and Garden State Seafood, said NOAA has never produced “a single, reliable population estimate for any of the five distinct population segments” and has failed to “adequately gauge” the benefits of existing management measures that “according to NOAA were adequate to prevent an ESA (Endangered Species Act) listing in 1998.”

He said in an email that the listing would affect 40 East Coast gillnet fisheries at risk.

“This is another example where ‘best available science’ and precautionary decision-making are doing a disservice to the U.S. fishing industry,” said Marks.

© 2012 the Gloucester Daily Times

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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