Fisheries Service to Protect Green Sturgeon in Sacramento River, Refuses to Extend Protection to Klamath Basin

Fisheries Service to Protect Green Sturgeon in Sacramento River, Refuses to Extend Protection to Klamath Basin

April 5, 2005

For more information, please contact:
Jeff Miller, CBD, 510-499-9185
Cynthia Elkins, EPIC, 707-923-2931

Responding to a court order obtained by conservation groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) announced today that it intends to protect the southern population of the North American green sturgeon, Acipenser medirostris, under the federal Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), but will refuse to protect spawning populations of this rare fish in the northern portion of its range, including in the Klamath River Basin. The southern population is comprised of fish in the San Francisco Bay and Delta that spawn in the Sacramento River Basin, and the northern population extends from the Eel River in Humboldt County, California to the Columbia River in Washington.

The proposed listing comes in response to a petition filed in 2001 for endangered species protection for the green sturgeon and a subsequent lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center (“EPIC”), the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council. The petition presented substantial scientific information about the imperiled status of the green sturgeon throughout its entire range, including in the Klamath River. The Bush Administration denied the petition in January 2003. In March 2004, Judge Elizabeth LaPorte of the Northern District Court of California ruled that the determination was arbitrary and violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to address the decline and loss of sturgeon spawning populations from a significant portion of its former range, and ordered NMFS to publish a new listing determination.

“This decision is a leap toward recovery for this ancient fish in the Sacramento River and Bay Delta, but we still have a long way to go,” said Jeff Miller, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. “By leaving the northern population completely unprotected, the Bush Administration is setting up the sturgeon and their river habitats to become further casualties in the Klamath Basin water war.”

The Endangered Species Act provides a safety net for wildlife, plants, and fish on the brink of extinction, designed to ensure good stewardship of endangered species such as the green sturgeon and the habitats they depend on for survival. However, water agencies, agricultural interests, developers, and the Bush Administration have been working to strip habitat protections, endangering the health of the clean, flowing rivers that green sturgeon need to survive. For example, in court documents, lawyers for water agencies argued that green sturgeon do not need their spawning habitats protected because the fish could simply remain in the ocean instead, ignoring the biological reality that green sturgeon can only reproduce in cool, unpolluted freshwater streams.

“Green sturgeon are true natural wonders, surviving for millions of years,” Cynthia Elkins, spokesperson for EPIC, said. “Unfortunately, this magnificent creature is quickly disappearing throughout its range, with numbers at critically low levels in the Eel, Klamath, Rogue, and Columbia Rivers. We remain determined in our work to protect the green sturgeon in these areas, and to ensuring this great fish survives the Bush Administration.”

The green sturgeon is one of the most ancient fish species in the world, remaining unchanged in its appearance since it first emerged 200 million years ago. Green sturgeon are among the largest and longest living species found in freshwater, living up to 70 years, reaching 7.5 feet in length, and weighing up to 350 pounds. The ancient fish species looks prehistoric, with a skeleton consisting of mostly cartilage and rows of bony plates for scales. They have snouts like shovels and mouths like vacuum cleaners that are used to siphon shrimp and other food from sandy depths.

Green sturgeons are anadromous, meaning they migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. Adult fish range from Alaska to Mexico in marine waters and feed in estuaries and bays from San Francisco Bay to British Columbia. However, only three spawning populations are known to remain, in the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers in California, and the Rogue River in Oregon. Between four and seven spawning populations have already been lost in California and Oregon and the three remaining spawning runs are each thought to contain only a few hundred females of spawning age, at most. In addition to habitat destruction and water withdrawals from spawning rivers, over-fishing has been a major cause of decline of the green sturgeon. Sturgeons are highly vulnerable to over-fishing because of the long time it takes them to reach breeding maturity and because their large size and sluggish nature make them easy to catch.