In what could be a major step in the right direction for the recovery of threatened Gulf sturgeon and other rare species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are scheduled to propose critical habitat in several areas throughout the Gulf region. Friday's expected announcement comes after more than eight years of legal wrangling, attempting to get the federal agencies to do what the law demands: protect inhabiting coastal rivers in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi and the estuaries and bays in and around the Gulf of Mexico.
"Finally, some good news for this imperiled species," proclaimed Robert Wiygul, attorney for Earthjustice who brought suit in this case on behalf of the Sierra Club. "This proposed critical habitat designation could be far-reaching and could translate into much greater protections for endangered species. We're finally moving towards the original intent of the ESA: to move species off of the list."
The areas to be proposed for critical habitat designation include; the Pearl River system in Louisiana and Mississippi; the Pascagoula River system in Mississippi; the Escambia River system in Florida and Alabama; the Yellow River system in Florida and Alabama; the Choctawhatchee River system in Florida and Alabama; the Apalachicola River system in Florida; and the Suwannee River system in Florida. Several estuarine and marine areas in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi are also included in the proposal.
"If the proposals are enacted, this can mean only good things for Florida's endangered and threatened species," said David Guest, Earthjustice attorney in Tallahassee. "We had to whack Fish and Wildlife on the head to get them to do the right thing, but now that they are proposing to do just that, there is hope for Gulf sturgeon."
FWS previously had refused to formally designate critical habitat for Gulf sturgeon even though the agency conceded that doing so would be necessary for the recovery of the species. The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2001 that a finding by the agency refusing to protect sturgeon habitat was invalid, thereby clearing the path for tomorrow's expected proposal in the Federal Register.
"The sturgeon and all other species in these Lousiana 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."
Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1991, Gulf sturgeon can reach 500 pounds and can live almost 50 years. It is one of the few anadromous – or sea fish – species that breeds in fresh water rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Once ranging from the Florida Keys to the Mississippi River, the population is now largely confined to the zone between Louisiana and the Suwanee River 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 – the species is 350 million years old – 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 fish are considered by experts to be remarkably even-tempered.