Canadian fishing threatens Atlantic sturgeon’s recovery: U.S. expert
October 10, 2010
Vancouver Sun (Postmedia News)
By Randy Boswell
Dr. Ellen Pikitch was interviewed for the following story:
An American expert on the Atlantic sturgeon — a large and ancient fish identified last week as threatened throughout its U.S. range — says efforts to protect the so-called “living dinosaur” in U.S. waters could be undermined by legal harvesting of the species in Canada.
The warning follows last Tuesday’s announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. federal fisheries agency, that a host of threats facing the Atlantic sturgeon — including ship strikes and accidental harvesting as bycatch by East Coast fishing fleets — require its immediate listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The next day, months ahead of the scheduled publication date, a team of U.S. scientists released their “timely” results from a satellite-tagging study showing that Atlantic sturgeon spawning in New York’s Hudson River can range as far south as Georgia and well north into Canadian waters — where they are at risk of being caught as part of small, federally controlled commercial fishery.
"Continued fishing for Atlantic sturgeon in Canada could thwart efforts to recover endangered U.S. populations of the species,” Ellen Pikitch, director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at New York’s Stony Brook University, told Postmedia News.
Pikitch is one of 11 U.S. co-authors of the Hudson River study, to be published in December in the Journal of Applied Ichthyology.
Described as a “first-of-its-kind study” for tracking the ocean movements of adult Atlantic sturgeons, the research project found that the fish “move vast distances in the Atlantic Ocean, traveling as far south as Georgia and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada.”
Pikitch and the other scientists also concluded that “the findings indicate that recovery of Atlantic sturgeon fisheries will need to address long-range oceanic threats to the species in addition to local measures closer to spawning grounds.”
The earlier announcement by NOAA’s fisheries service followed a detailed assessment of the health of five separate U.S. populations of Atlantic sturgeon, among them a New York Bight population that includes those studied in the Hudson River tagging project.
As with other members of the sturgeon family, the Atlantic species spawns in freshwater streams, such as New Brunswick’s Saint John River, but spends most of its life cycle in the ocean.
The massive fish, coveted in the past as a source of caviar, can grow to 350 kilograms or more.
Sturgeon species can live as long a century and have been inhabiting the Earth’s estuary environments since the time of the dinosaurs — more than 65 million years ago.
The Atlantic sturgeon isn’t the only sturgeon species posing cross-boundary conservation challenges along the U.S.-Canada border.
Earlier this year, U.S. wildlife officials began a controversial experiment designed to encourage the white sturgeon — Canada’s largest freshwater fish and one of this country’s most critically endangered species — to swim upstream from waters in British Columbia and Idaho to historic spawning grounds in Montana that haven’t been reached for decades.
Declared endangered in Canada in 2003, the white sturgeon is now struggling to survive in the Northwestern U.S. and the remaining four watersheds it inhabits in B.C., including the Kootenay River system.
In a bid to "coax" aging white sturgeon from B.C. and Idaho to take a long-overdue trip back to their forgotten, pebbly love nest in Montana, U.S. officials opened the floodgates at Kootenay’s main dam despite concerns about low water levels among boaters and cottagers upstream on both sides of the border.
The effort to revive the Atlantic sturgeon could also generate controversy as U.S. fisheries managers weigh conservation measures — certain to become stricter under an endangered species designation — against current fishing practices and other activities that pose potential harm to the species.
"Atlantic sturgeon were almost rendered extinct in the late 1800s due to over-fishing, and recent protections enacted to save these fish have prevented further declines," Pikitch said in a summary of the Hudson River study. "If we want Atlantic sturgeon to make a full recovery, we need to understand and address the threats these fish face during their oceanic phase.”
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Study Provides Data That Can Inform Atlantic Sturgeon Recovery Efforts