"This is a far-reaching case that could easily translate into much greater protection for endangered species," said Robert Wiygul, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who litigated the case. "This decision is a return to the original intent of the ESA – to recover species and move them off the list. The ESA has been criticized for not recovering enough species, but this decision tells us the Act has never been given a fair chance."
The FWS had refused to formally designate critical – or protected – habitat for the Gulf Sturgeon even though the agency conceded that doing so would be necessary for the recovery of the species. Thursday's court action found that Congress clearly intended critical habitat to be designated to help endangered species recover and eventually be removed from the endangered species list.
The agency had relied on this regulation in hundreds of cases to argue that critical habitat should receive little or no additional protection under the ESA. As part of this decision, the court found that the FWS regulation used nationwide that defines protection of critical habitat was too narrowly drawn because it failed to provide for protection of habitat vital for the recovery of species. While the Gulf Sturgeon was the primer for the lawsuit, conservationists hail the decision as far-reaching, potentially affecting hundreds of endangered species.
Honey Island Swamp and the lower Pearl River Basin in Louisiana are home to one of the only remaining Gulf Sturgeon populations. "The sturgeon and all other species in these Louisiana river systems need protection from water pollution and destructive dredging projects," said Barry Kohl, conservation chair of the New Orleans Group of the Sierra Club. "Critical habitat will be a powerful tool for citizens to protect these special places."
The Gulf Sturgeon can reach 500 pounds and live almost 50 years. It is one of the few anadromous fish species, or sea fish that breed in fresh water, in the Gulf of Mexico. Once ranging from the Florida Keys to the Mississippi River, the population is now confined to only four rivers: Pearl River in Louisiana, Pascagoula River in Mississippi, and Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers in Florida.
Although once common enough to support a commercial fishery, sturgeon were pushed to the brink of extinction by overfishing, water pollution and dams that destroyed their habitat. One of the oldest existing fish species, sturgeon populations are disappearing from their habitats worldwide. In old English law, sturgeons were considered royal fish that, if caught on or near the shore, became property of the king. In Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, sturgeons are referred to as Mishe-Nahma, the king of fishes. Although the entire eighth chapter of the poem is given over an account of Hiawatha's epic battle with the sturgeon, the Gulf Sturgeon is considered by experts to be a remarkably even-tempered fish. The Gulf Sturgeon was listed under the ESA in 1990.