Feds propose protecting two sturgeon species to save one

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Submitted photo The shovelnose sturgeon, left, is generally darker in color than the rarer and endangered pallid sturgeon, right. However, pallid sturgeon can sometimes be just as dark.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct that the sturgeon egg harvest is from shovelnose, not pallid, sturgeon.

The harvest of shovelnose sturgeon, one of the more lucrative sources of income for commercial fishermen on the Mississippi River, should be ended to protect the endangered pallid sturgeon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday.

The problem is that the two fish are similar in appearance, resulting in the illegal taking of pallid sturgeon, the wildlife agency said in a news release. The proposed new rule aims to eliminate the problem by naming the shovelnose sturgeon as a threatened species based on that similarity.

Shovelnose sturgeon eggs are highly sought as a replacement for Beluga caviar from Russia, a fishing industry that has all but collapsed. Retail prices for shovelnose sturgeon caviar range from $30 to $90 for a two-ounce tin.

The proposed regulation would ban the harvest of shovelnose sturgeon in any area where the range of the fish overlaps with the pallid sturgeon. That area includes the Mississippi River downstream from the Melvin Price Locks and Dam at East Alton, Ill., and the Missouri River from North Dakota to the confluence north of St. Louis as well as parts of the Platte River in Nebraska, the Kansas River in Kansas, the Yellowstone River in North Dakota and Montana and the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana.

The pallid sturgeon was first listed as an endangered species in 1990. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have been considering whether to ask for the threatened listing for the shovelnose since 1993, said Jane Ledwin, fish and wildlife biologist with the Ecological Field Services office in Columbia, Mo.

The wildlife agency has been monitoring whether the pallid sturgeon is recovering, looking for abundance, size, age and whether the fish are living long enough to reproduce, Ledwin said. "As we gathered more and more information, we found some disturbing trends," she said. "In those areas where there was commercial shovelnose fishing, the pallid sturgeon population showed younger fish, fewer fish and a higher estimated mortality."

The proposed rule, she said, seemed like the best way to eliminate the threat to the pallid sturgeon.

According to data published in the Federal Register along with the proposed regulation, the harvest of shovelnose sturgeon eggs peaked in 2005 at 14,885 pounds from rivers in Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Missouri harvest reached 4,490 pounds in 2003 before it began to decline, in part due to size limits on the fish being harvested.

The similarity between the pallid sturgeon and the shovelnose is most striking when the smaller shovelnose is mature and producing eggs and the pallid sturgeon is still immature. A mature shovelnose rarely exceeds 30 inches in length and five pounds, but a mature pallid sturgeon can be four to five feet long and weigh up to 65 pounds.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has been working to restore the pallid sturgeon and the larger lake sturgeon through hatchery programs. The agency has also been monitoring the harvest and populations of shovelnose sturgeon and issued papers that raise questions about the long-term viability of the commercial fishery of the species.

The department issues the permits that allow commercial fishermen to harvest shovelnose sturgeon. In coming weeks, the agency will decide whether it will take a stand on the proposed ban, said Jim Low, spokesman for the department. "Whether this agency comments will be determined by the director, the staff" and the Missouri Conservation Commission, Low said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on the new rule through Nov. 23. A final rule would be effective in about a year.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

To comment, visit the website www.regulations.gov or write to the Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Arlington, VA 22203. Refer to Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2009-027.

Pertinent Address:

Mississippi River, Cape Girardeau, MO

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