The federal government is proposing to give endangered species status to the Atlantic sturgeon – a large, plated, prehistoric fish – in the Chesapeake Bay and along the North Carolina coast.
The decision, announced this week, comes after three years of study and a petition from an environmental group urging that it be declared endangered.
If approved after a public comment period that ends in January, the status would bring a host of new protections and restrictions to Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina waterways – so many limits that some fishing groups worry they might be fined for accidentally snagging even one sturgeon.
Other activities, including dredging and scientific research, would likely be more tightly regulated, too, officials said.
“It cuts both ways, with pros and cons,” said Chuck Frederickson, the riverkeeper for the lower James River, where a resurgent population of sturgeon can be found.
Frederickson said federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, intended to keep the fish from becoming extinct, might also bring more national attention and funds to help revive the ancient sturgeon.
Brownish-orange in color and weighing as much as 600 pounds, Atlantic sturgeon have been around for millions of years. They once were so bountiful that colonists at Jamestown were said to catch and eat them in droves.
But they take an abnormally long time to reach sexual maturity and have suffered mightily in modern times from pressures such as boat strikes, pollution, lost habitat, dredging of navigational channels and dam construction.
A coastwide ban on fishing for Atlantic sturgeon has been in place from Maine to Florida since 1998. But even that measure has not helped much. So finally, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to intervene.
In its announcement Tuesday, the fisheries service broke the coastal population into five groups. Those sturgeon in the Gulf of Maine are proposed to receive threatened status, while fish in the New York Bight, the Chesapeake Bay, off North and South Carolina, and off the South Atlantic coast would be classified as endangered.
Such a status prohibits the “taking” of any sturgeon, which the government defines as “harassing, harming, pursuing, wounding, killing, trapping or collecting.”
Frederickson said the James River Association has been working under a special state permit for years to research and restore sturgeon in conjunction with fishery experts at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For that work to continue, the scientists will need to get permission from the federal government as well.
“It may add a few more hoops, but we expect to keep our efforts going,” Frederickson said. He noted that a first-ever sturgeon spawning reef was completed earlier this year on the James River in Chesterfield County, south of Richmond.
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