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What’s the Latest on Atlantic Sturgeon?

Atlantic sturgeon.  Photo credit: NOAA

In February 2012, NOAA Fisheries listed five distinct population segments of Atlantic sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Gulf of Maine population was listed as threatened and the New York Bight, Chesapeake Bay, Carolina and South Atlantic populations were listed as endangered. Listing determinations under the ESA must be made based on the best scientific and commercial data available at the time.

The Atlantic sturgeon listing determination was based primarily on an analysis of the ongoing and future threats to the species because there were no overall population estimates available. In the listing determination, we used estimates of spawning adults in the Hudson and Altamaha Rivers, which indicated that these populations were quite low (867 total adults in the Hudson and 343 spawning adults per year in the Altamaha). The primary threats to the species identified in the listing determination were incidental catch in fisheries, vessel strikes, water quality and quantity, and dredging.

Since the listing, we have been working on obtaining more comprehensive population estimates for the species. These population estimates are useful for recovery planning and to complete required consultations under the ESA. Whenever a federal or state agency conducts an activity that could potentially impact a species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA that is managed by NOAA Fisheries, they are required to consult with our agency so we can provide recommendations to help mitigate impacts on the species.

New Population Estimates

At our request, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center developed a new population estimate for the Atlantic sturgeon that are mostly living in the ocean, rather than rivers, using a new model.  The resulting population estimate for oceanic Atlantic sturgeon was between about 165,400 and  744,600 fish. This does not include young fish that have not yet left the rivers in which they were born or Atlantic sturgeon that occur outside of the sampled area (e.g., in Canadian waters or south of Cape Hatteras).  

Given time sensitivities and the uncertainty associated with the new estimates, we used another estimate that the Center generated from Northeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program (NEAMAP) data to complete a “batch” biological opinion for 7 Northeast Fisheries.  Using these NEAMAP data, the Center calculated ocean population estimates, which entail fewer assumptions about Atlantic sturgeon than the ASPI model.   The minimum biomass estimate from this approach is approximately 67,800 oceanic Atlantic sturgeon.  This is a conservative estimate of fish in the majority of the area affected by the seven Northeast Fisheries.

Completing this biological opinion as quickly as possible is important because Atlantic sturgeon are taken as bycatch in these seven fisheries.  We needed to better understand the potential risk to the species of these “takes1.” and to ensure that fishermen are not needlessly penalized if an animal is caught inadvertently in their fishing gear and the risk to the species long-term survival or recovery is low.

Although all of the new population estimates are encouraging, compared to population estimates prior to the collapse in the early 1900s, they represent just a fraction of the number of animals, historically, present along the East Coast of North America.

Next Steps

Understandably, there is a great deal of interest in how these new population estimates could affect the original listing determination.

All of the information that was used to derive recent population estimates (e.g., the new model,  the NEFSC bycatch analysis, genetic mixed stock analysis, and the methodology for the estimates, a recent review of the new model from external parties),  as well as any other new information we have on Atlantic sturgeon is being shared with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for use in its upcoming Atlantic sturgeon stock assessment, which is expected to be completed in 2014.   

It is very important to allow the Commission to complete its stock assessment and resolve any issues regarding the population estimates before revisiting the listing decision.  The information generated through the Commission process, together with what we know about existing and potential future threats, will be used to help us determine whether a new status review under the ESA is necessary.  We are committed to working very closely with ASMFC throughout the stock assessment process.

For more information, contact Kim Damon-Randall, Protected Resources Division, at 978-282-8485 or email her at kimberly.damon-randall@noaa.gov

 

  1. “Under the ESA, “take” is defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” The ESA makes it illegal for any person to take any species listed as threatened or endangered without authorization. Take prohibitions also apply to the habitat a listed species requires for its survival. Violating take prohibitions can result in civil or criminal penalties.