On Jan. 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the Atlantic sturgeon an endangered species. Both industry leaders and fishery regulators oppose the listing, saying it will have a severe impact on a number of fisheries, the near-shore gillnet fisheries for striped bass, bluefish, and monkfish in particular.
The designation applies to four distinct populations of the prehistoric creature, the source of meat and caviar before a complete fishing ban was imposed a decade ago, including the New York Bight, Chesapeake Bay, the Carolinas, and the Atlantic off the U.S. southern coast.. Fish living in the Gulf of Maine have been given a more optimistic “threatened” designation.
The life cycle of the Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus, leaves it vulnerable to boats, pollution, dredging (a project in the Delaware River has been put on hold due to its potential impact on the fish), and fishing gear, gillnets in particular. That is because the species, which can grow 15 feet long and weigh as much as 800 pounds (although most caught these days are smaller) is anadromous, swimming into the brackish water of estuaries to spawn and returning to the ocean to feed — close to the coast. According to the nation’s Endangered Species Act, any interference with an endangered animal — even, in the case of fish, a catch-and-release — constitutes a “taking” of it.
Arnold Leo, secretary of the East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association and the town’s former fisheries consultant, attended a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission earlier this month. He said the sturgeon listing, announced by Lisa Manning of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s office of protected resources, “was met with hostility” by representatives of the coastal states.
Mr. Leo and others said fragmented and incomplete data was used in making the designation. “What’s got people concerned is that the designation could eliminate gillnet fisheries for monkfish, cod, and other species, from 25 fathoms offshore into shore,” he said.
In a memo to the office of protected resources sent on behalf of the Baymen’s Association, Mr. Leo wrote that the data used to make the “endangered” decision seemed to mix sturgeon populations that have been proven genetically distinct. He also questioned the reliability of “bycatch” data; that is, information generated by reports of sturgeon caught while targeting other species. “The impact on coastal commercial fishing from such an unwarranted listing is unacceptably high,” Mr. Leo wrote.
Bonnie Brady, director of the Montauk-based Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, also criticized the listing, saying it was based on 25-year-old data. She said New York and New Jersey had much more recent surveys that showed sturgeon populations actually growing. Sturgeon were an important source of meat in Colonial times, and in the not-too-distant past East Hampton baymen netted them and harvested caviar.
A meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s ad hoc Atlantic Sturgeon Committee will be held on Tuesday in Baltimore, to discuss ways to minimize incidental catches of sturgeon, given the endangered species listing. Lori Nolan of Montauk, a New York delegate to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, will chair the meeting, which will be attended by officials of the various states’ bureaus of marine resources.
Ms. Nolan said there seemed to be agreement that the endangered designation was not based on adequate science. “We’re waiting to hear how it’s going to be classified, jeopardy or non-jeopardy,” she said, explaining that the former classification raised the possibility of closing down a fishery in the case of a sturgeon encounter with fishing gear. “We want all fisheries to show up in the non-jeopardy” types of encounters deemed less harmful, Ms. Nolan said.
Although trawl (dragger) fisheries that target species including summer flounder, scup, and black sea bass, as well as groundfish such as cod, pollock, and yellowtail flounder, and even the separate squid fishery, are mentioned in the listing as a possible hindrance to sturgeon, dragger-and-sturgeon encounters were less of a concern. At most risk by the ruling are the near-shore gillnet fisheries for bluefish, monk, and striped bass, said Ms. Nolan.