GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 29, 2013

NOAA concedes:sturgeon not endangered, after all

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Without a stock assessment and to howls of outrage by industry and questions about the justification of the action by the New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA approved a petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council 15 months ago that granted Atlantic sturgeon protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided that its Jan. 31, 2012 action — declaring the sturgeon endangered along the entire Atlantic Coast except in the Gulf of Maine, where it was only “threatened” — was premature and may not have been necessary.

The agency last week published a draft biological opinion that in effect contradicts its original decision, and has opened a 60-day comment period on the finding of “no jeopardy” to the sturgeon from major fisheries.

The fisheries endangering or threatening the survival of the ancient armored fish which grows to up to 800 pounds were found to be Northeast multispecies, monkfish, spiny dogfish, bluefish, Northeast skate complex, mackerel/squid/butterfish, and summer flounder/scup/black sea bass.

The biological draft opinion found that the fisheries posed “no jeopardy” to the sturgeon.

“The population seems higher than we thought,” said Allison McHale, special assistant to NOAA’s Gloucester-based regional administrator, John Bullard. “We don’t think these fisheries create jeopardy for sturgeon.”

Meanwhile, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — a compact of states that together manage stocks and species that live primarily inshore — has announced plans to conduct a first benchmark stock assessment of the sturgeon, which is expected to be peer reviewed and made public in 2014. Federal waters begin three miles from shore and extend 200 miles from there to the open seas.

McHale said NOAA could initiate a de-listing of the sturgeon after the stock assessment.

The listing last year has not yet been converted into protective actions, but last year in response to the listing, Ron Smolowitz of the Fishery Survival Fund, the Fairhaven-based scalloping industry, research and conservation organization, predicted that the action would have an effect on commercial fishing that rivaled what the listing of the “spotted owl” has had on logging in the Pacific Northwest.

After the petition — but before the listing — Commercial Fisheries News in August 2011 described the listing as having “the potential to affect commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as activities that alter sturgeon habitat, including spawning areas and water quality.”

When NOAA announced its decision, the New England council, an arm of NOAA that recommends policy based on scientific analysis, responded with aggressive skepticism, voting overwhelmingly to ask NOAA to clarify the reasoning and methodology for concluding the sturgeon was in jeopardy. The council also sought standing to work collaboratively with NOAA on the biological opinion.

“We didn’t ask for this fight,” said David Goethel, a Hampton, N.H., commercial fisherman and a member of the council. “(Sturgeon) should not have been listed, it should have been sent back, and they should have done a stock assessment.”

“While this determination of no fishing related jeopardy does not resolve all of the sturgeon conservation issues, it shifts the fisheries from an ESA (Endangered Species Act) crisis mode to one that can be addressed buy increased buy collaboration and improved scientific understanding,” said the Trenton, N.J.-based Garden State Seafood Association.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.